Ian Montagu: Is Scotland becoming more Eurosceptic?

GENERAL consensus holds that Scots feel more positive about EU membership than those south of the border, but new data suggests this gap may be narrowing.

Scotland may not be as pro-European as we are led to believe. Picture: Neil Hanna
Scotland may not be as pro-European as we are led to believe. Picture: Neil Hanna

Figures from NatCens British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys suggests that Scottish attitudes towards the European Union may not be so different from those south of the border.

Last week, over an ‘English dinner’ in Brussels, David Cameron secured what he considered to be a successful renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union.

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The days since have seen considerable political division on the issue, with a number of senior Tories nailing their colours to the mast.

Opinion polls suggest that the public are also split on the issue.

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Poll: 54% of Scots would back independence following Brexit

Average figures from the six most recent polls show that 54 per cent of voters across Britain wish to remain in the EU, whilst 46 per cent support a Brexit (these numbers have changed frequently over the past few months, and may continue to do so right up until polling day).

But what do we know about Scottish attitudes towards the UK’s membership of the EU, and how accurately can we compare them to attitudes south of the border?

Four pollsters (Panelbase, Survation, YouGov and Ipsos MORI) have conducted polls exclusively in Scotland at a similar time as undertaking polling across the rest of Britain, asking the question that will appear on the ballot paper in June: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’.

Although average figures from these polls suggest a 50/50 split across Britain as a whole, support for Remain in Scotland is measured at 68 per cent, with only 32 per cent backing the Leave campaign.

These figures support the accepted wisdom that Scots are likely to vote Remain on 23 June, whilst the result across the rest of Britain remains in doubt. But does this mean that Scotland is, on the whole, more Europhile than the rest of Britain?

New data published today from NatCen’s 2015 British and Scottish Social Attitudes (BSA and SSA) surveys suggests that, despite this apparent gap in referendum voting intention, Scottish attitudes towards Europe may actually be converging with those across the rest of Britain.

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In 1992, BSA began asking people what they think Britain’s long-term policy towards the EU should be by presenting respondents with five options ranging from leaving the EU altogether all the way to forming a single European government.

Today’s BSA data shows that although only 22 per cent say Britain’s long-term policy should be to leave the EU, 43 per cent say that Britain should remain in the EU but reduce the EU’s powers. Taken together these figures suggest that 65 per cent of British voters would like the UK to be less intertwined with the EU than it currently is – in other words, Euroscepticism across Britain remains fairly common.

But what about Scotland?

The SSA has asked exactly the same question of its respondents since 1999, and in recent years has consistently recorded lower levels of Euroscepticism than its sister survey south of the border.

Data from SSA 2015 however puts Euroscepticism in Scotland at 60 per cent, the highest level ever recorded by SSA and just five percentage points behind the level recorded across Britain as a whole. So, although comparing this year’s BSA and SSA results shows that Scotland remains marginally more pro-EU than Britain as a whole, data from SSA shows that Euroscepticism in Scotland appears to be on the rise (from 39 per cent in 2013, to 53 per cent in 2014, to today’s new high of 60 per cent).

But how can we explain the gap in referendum voting intention suggested by the opinion polls?

The answer may lie with the relative strength of party cues being given north and south of the border.

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While the Conservatives remain publicly divided on the issue in England, the SNP appear to have successfully framed EU membership as central to their vision for Scotland’s future.

So although this year’s data suggests that, much like the rest of Britain, voters in Scotland would increasingly like to see a less powerful EU, the coherent policy towards Europe being offered to Scottish voters by the SNP seems to be shepherding them towards the Remain camp.
Ian Montagu is a researcher at ScotCen Social Research.