Declaration of Arbroath

A battle of sovereignties?

Published: 16 December 2022

Since Brexit 2016, we seem to have entered a battle of sovereignties – Scottish and British – between two apparently antithetical conceptions of sovereignty, reflected in political struggles between nationalists and unionists. But can we be sure that this is a binary divide? Or do we nowadays live in a post-sovereignty world, as the late Neil MacCormick argued?

The question of sovereignty has never been resolved in Scotland. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the Westminster Parliament is absolutely sovereign and supreme. On the other are those who insist that it is a union of nations, bound by the terms of union and periodically renegotiated. This historic ambivalence has been exposed by three sets of events: the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999; the challenge of independence and the independence referendum of 2014, which did not close the question; and UK withdrawal from the European Union following the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The Scottish Government has argued that the Scottish people should not be bound by Brexit when they had voted Remain. The UK Government insists that it was the ‘British people’ who took that sovereign decision. The Scottish Government claims that the Scottish Parliament should decide whether a new independence referendum can be held. The Supreme Court has ruled that it has no such right. Yet successive UK Governments have conceded that Scotland does have the right to self determination.

In a new article in The Political Quarterly, we ask how Scots themselves make sense of all this, drawing on a survey we conducted in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. There are two sides to the sovereignty argument (a) the subject, who should make decisions; and (b) the object, what decisions should be taken.

We  asked two questions using scales running from ‘strongly agree/agree/neither/disagree/strongly disagree’. The first was about Scottish self-determination (the subject):

‘People in Scotland should have the ultimate right to decide for themselves how they should be governed.

And the second:

‘Because a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum, people in Scotland should accept that decision.

Those who ‘agreed’, strongly or otherwise, with the first proposition, as well as those who ‘disagreed’, strongly or otherwise, with the second we defined as strong Scottish sovereigntists, aligned with the current position of the Scottish Government. They represented about 40% of the sample. At the other pole about 15% rejected Scottish sovereignty on both dimensions, and are unambiguous British unionists, aligned with the position of the current UK Government. A further 16% were ‘semi-sovereigntists’, that is, while in favour of Scottish self-determination, they ceded legitimacy to the UK on the Brexit issue.

We then asked about the object of sovereignty as the right to make concrete decisions; about taxes and welfare benefits; where competences coming back to the UK after Brexit should reside, for example, who should make decisions about farming post-Brexit. And who should make rules about immigration?

Broadly speaking, the results are much as we might expect. Scottish sovereigntists are much more inclined to have the Scottish Government/Parliament make decisions for Scotland while unionists are more inclined to the UK Government/Parliament.

What is more interesting is that so many responses are not straightforward. Many voters do not see union or independence as strict binary choices, each leading to a consistent set of preferences around issues of self-determination and control of policy fields. There is support both for ‘devolution-max’ (control of all taxation and welfare) and ‘independence-lite’ (sharing armed forces and the currency after independence). 

To take some examples:

among Scottish sovereigntists, as many as 54% accept sharing a currency with the remaining UK (rUK) after independence (46% want a Scottish currency);

41% accept sharing armed forces with rUK (58% want Scotland to have its own armed forces);

43% accept UK spending in Scotland in areas usually decided by Scottish Government (such as schools, roads and hospitals).

On immigration, 31% (almost a third) think the rules should be same in Scotland as rUK in context of independence.

Among British unionists, we also find unexpected crossovers:

On taxes, only 36% think the UK should decide all taxes; on welfare benefits, only 30% of unionists think that all benefits should be decided by UK government.

On who should have right to decide on a second Independence referendum, only a bare majority (54%) by the UK parliament alone.

On the UK parliament making laws for Scotland, one-third of unionists think it should not – ostensibly a sovereigntist position.

What we take from these findings is that, even among Scottish sovereigntists and British unionists, the two polar positions, there is considerable nuance and complexity, such that the sovereigntists are willing to accept sharing with the UK, even post-independence, while unionists accede that many decisions should be the responsibility of Scottish Government. Unsurprisingly, semi-sovereigntists, who are 16% of the sample, are more likely to be in favour of shared decision-making, but it is the fact that among Scottish sovereigntists and unionists there is considerable support for either sharing or the ‘other government’ making key decisions which is most striking. In other words, there is considerable nuance about that sovereignty means in Scotland, not only among semi-sovereigntists, but among the polar opposites, Scottish sovereigntists and British unionists.

A further complication is that the Scottish sovereigntists are willing to share sovereignty with Europe, while the British unionists, by and large, are not. This accords with modern underestandings of sovereignty as something shared and divided, rather than a single thing which a nation does or does not have. This is very different from the Brexiter vision, which insists that all sovereignty must be concentrated in one place. It is the pursuit of this vision that has made the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe so difficult. We know from other surveys that people who identify as strongly English are most committed to Brexit. Most English Brexiters would even accept the break up of the United Kingdom if that were necessary to achieve Brexit. Scots have lived in a union for over three hundred years so that shared sovereignty is part of the political culture, widely shared by both ‘nationalists’ and ‘unionists’. It is these different understandings of sovereignty rather than the question of where all the sovereignty should go that is at the base of the current impasse.


Image: Martin Burns

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