Government and politics

Opinion: The Scottish question

We sought views on September’s Scottish independence referendum. Here we publish three replies and encourage you to continue the debate.

17 June 2014

There is much debate concerning the extent to which issues of identity might affect the independence referendum. But, even to the extent that they will, it certainly isn’t a matter of those who feel more Scottish being more likely to vote Yes.


In the first place, there are many studies, including our own, that demonstrate that there is little relationship between strength of Scottish identification and support for an independent Scotland. The reason is quite straightforward. What identification does is to create a concern for the fate of the group, and many passionate Scots believe that independence would be bad for Scotland. They point to the fact that the greatest flourishing of national culture in the Scottish enlightenment occurred after the Treaty of Union. In the 19th century there was even a movement of nationalist unionism that urged stronger ties to England in the interest of Scots.


This doesn’t mean that Scottish identity is irrelevant to the question of independence. It means that we need a more nuanced approach to the relationship. My research with Nick Hopkins and with Denis Sindic suggests that we look more closely at the content of Scottishness: at the norms and values associated with Scottish identity; at the vision of ‘the good society’ that they project. For those who do identify themselves as Scottish, the key question then becomes, does union with England and Wales promote or undermine this vision? If the answer is ‘undermine’ – that is, if there is a sense that English and Scottish values are at odds and that, in the UK, policies reflecting English values are imposed on the Scots – then independence becomes an attractive option.


The pitch of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is oriented precisely to this issue. Scots, they tell us, are inherently more communal and progressive and even internationalist than the English. The ability of Scots to build a fairer society is ever undermined by English conservatism and insularity. And anything that serves to validate this viewpoint will serve to strengthen the cause of independence. Now let me turn to a second reason why the independence question does not hinge on the strength of Scottish sentiment.


At the start of January this year, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Deputy First Minister of Scotland, launched the independence campaign with a speech on my doorstep, at the University of St Andrews. The speech reflected the fact that the SNP cannot win the independence vote on SNP votes alone. They need others, in particular the left in the Labour Party and beyond. So Sturgeon spent a lot of time claiming Labour and left icons in Scotland – Tom Johnston, the legendary Secretary of State for Scotland, and the Red Clydesiders, radical trades unionists during and after the First World War – for the independence cause. 


It was a bold claim, especially as far as Red Clydeside was concerned. They were resolute anti-imperialists who opposed the First World War and who saw it through the lens of class not nation. Now, the Scotland of today is very different to the Clydeside of a century ago. The country is far from uniformly radical. But still the radical tradition persists and, for those who support it, independence should be seen in similar class terms. Such people feel more in common with workers in Wapping than lairds in Largs. To them, identification with Scotland is largely irrelevant. Whether they vote for a new constitutional arrangement hinges on an entirely different identity and entirely different interests. Whether they vote for independence depends upon whether they think it will advance the radical cause north and south of the border.


A number of scenarios present themselves. The first is promoted by the SNP (and was stressed by Nicola Sturgeon), who are well aware of these issues. It is that a successful Scotland will act as a beacon that will lead the English to abandon their conservatism and embrace the radical cause. The second is that cutting off the more progressive parts of the UK will leave England and Wales as a permanent reactionary rump who suffer as the Scots thrive. The third, and even bleaker scenario (at least from a radical perspective) is that even if Scotland is a separate country it will still be dominated by its larger neighbour and so the reactionary rump will make a Scottish alternative impossible. Everyone will languish together.


Obviously, only the first of these three scenarios would promote a radical vote for independence. But perhaps there is a fourth that would also suffice. A counsel of despair. A sense that England is a lost cause and all one can do is save the Scottish masses. Sauve qui peut! Again, anything which serves to validate this viewpoint will serve to strengthen the cause of independence. 


Now, social scientists are not soothsayers. We cannot say what will happen, but we can map out the levers that will determine whether things happen. Or, in more familiar terms, we can identify the variables that will impact the referendum outcome. That is what I have sought to do here. Independence becomes more likely to the extent that, firstly, English values are seen to be opposed to Scottish values, and, secondly to the extent that England is seen as inescapably right wing and insular. 


In a sense, these are already strong claims. They suggest, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, that insularity can be at odds with the desire for a separate Scottish nation rather than associated with it. But this is supported by recent evidence showing that Scots who are against immigration from outside the UK are overwhelmingly against independence while those who are for such immigration predominantly support independence. 


I won’t go as far as predicting whether the referendum will actually be supported or not, partly because these issues are not determined, but are the stuff of political struggle and unforeseeable events. However, I will go this far. One of the key factors in the referendum debate will be the outcome of the European elections in May. If UKIP do extremely well in England and extremely badly in Scotland, (you will know, but we go to press before polling day), then it becomes easier for nationalists to argue that the English are different and for radicals to feel that England is irredeemable. 


So May could be a turning point. And the great achievement of UKIP would be to help break up the United Kingdom. Now what an irony that would be!


Steve Reicher

Professor of Social Psychology

School of Psychology and Neuroscience

University of St Andrews


I used to have a Scottish passport. I was about nine at the time and, though the memory is a little hazy, I swear it had a smart navy cover embossed with a thistle. To enhance the Celtic authenticity, the front also featured Nessie, bagpipes and a haggis, rendered as if in the wild. The Scottish passport was a much more distinguished document than my current British one; its provenance, from a shop selling Jaws mirrors and ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ statuettes only adding to its allure. Its primary disadvantage, failing to facilitate foreign travel, seemed negligible. Such were the shortcomings of laying claim to a Scottish, rather than a British, nationality. However, according to the SNP Scottish Executive, the limited functionality of a Scottish passport, and a good many other problems besides, may be remedied by a ‘Yes’ vote in the independence referendum on 18 September this year.

There is certainly romance in the Scottish cause, which has, through Jacobite rebellions and devolution referenda, been simmering pretty much from the moment of union in 1707. I don’t propose to get into that here. And, though the issues at stake (currency, EU membership and management of natural resources) are undoubtedly important, let’s also leave those to one side. Rather, I’d like to think a little about which psychological process may inform my compatriots’ decision to stay or go.

I’m often struck when hearing political professionals talk (see the New Yorker 2008 debate, referenced below), that they frequently describe votes in simple terms: as either being for change, or for the status quo. All the other complicated arguments basically get pulled in to bolster one or other position. Such a binary choice is even starker in a referendum. Arguing either the need for a new broom, or that we are safer as we are, is hugely influential on tactics. It means that the job of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is to damn the Act of Union as the root of all ills, from lost oil revenues to a national inferiority complex. He also has to tell us how wonderful the alternative Scandinavian-style state would be with a cosmopolitan culture and a permanent leftie government. (Scotland only has one Tory MP.) Alistair Darling and the Better Together campaign must conversely inform the electorate of the economic apocalypse independence would likely cause, and emphasise Scotland’s general too-smallness to hack it alone in a world of bigger states. Painting a rosy picture of the Union might be a bit more difficult as it has been knocking around for three hundred years and, as we know, the grass is always greener. 

The idea that politicians deal in self-serving simplifications, talk down the opposition and make unrealistic promises should not come as a huge surprise to anyone. A more interesting question is why such tactics are effective. A partial answer, observed by psychologists of many stripes, concerns our human tendencies to see the world in somewhat polarised terms, and to seek others to blame when things go wrong. 

Recognition of such thinking is a significant part of many clinical models of distress. Cognitive behavioural therapy captures some measure of our propensity to be black and white, all or nothing, and for our moods to be affected by extreme internal rules and by unhelpful attributions of blame. It’s psychodynamic theories though, that really chime in with our political selves. The splitting of the  world into good and bad Objects (Melanie Klein’s good and bad breasts), is absolutely fundamental to ideas of defence against painful feelings (see Lemma’s 2003 account of defence mechanisms). Once split, our feelings can be projected into another person or group who become idealised or hated. Think we’re not all capable of this? Ask yourself what you observed when Margaret Thatcher died. I argued at the time (McGowan, 2013), that the extreme reactions this prompted, even among the middle-aged and mild-mannered, were very much in line with the idea of primitive defence like splitting. Maggie was either Britannia or the Wicked Witch, and the 1980s held up as either national redemption or the end of civilisation as we knew it. 

One of the jobs of a psychotherapist is to help us recognise and tolerate shades of grey. Rules need not be absolute. People aren’t totally good or bad. In our politics though, we often fail to obtain such restraining counsels. That the tendency to blame and find scapegoats extends to groups as well as individuals has been well researched in social psychology, at least since the 1930s (e.g. Dollard et al., 1939). We may experience an increased tendency to blame others on the basis of religion, skin colour, sexual identity, nationality or other factors that imply difference or that someone is out of our group. More recent studies, such Poppe’s (2001) survey of attitudes during a period of economic decline in Eastern Europe suggest that, when times get tough, views about those outside central cultural groups can become sharply more negative. 

Scapegoating other groups has ugly connotations and may be more commonly associated with racist groups or political parties, such as UKIP, which have been explicitly set up for protest. The SNP is clearly less xenophobic than the UKippers, but there are in the position of encouraging some of the same psychological process. The Sassenachs need to be seen as the source of Scotland's troubles in order to be cut loose. The blaming of the outgroup however, is somewhat gentler with the SNP than with parties like UKIP, partly because they are in a classic political dilemma: wanting to blame someone else for what goes wrong but also encumbered with actual power. The SNP have genuine executive authority and need to be seen as credible big shots, responsible for successful policies and speaking for their whole nation. Of course, being in charge also leaves you in the firing line for failure. The time-honoured tactic in this situation is to blame the previous government. Though there are limits to how much a politician can palm it all off on the last lot, a really skilled one can manage it many times before the gig is up. In the case of Scotland there is an additional sucker to blame: the Westminster government. Alex Salmond has managed to do this quite brilliantly and deserves the epithet most frequently attached to him: canny. (His enemies more pejoratively describe him as wily.)

All of which brings us to the possible outcome in September. How will it turn out? I don’t know, but I do know what may influence it. It was Bill Clinton who pointed to the centrality of economic factors in all elections, to which I’d add even elections that seem to be about nationalism, history and pride. For all Alex Salmond’s cunning, the majority of Scots at present seem reluctant to blame the Union for their woes, or at least to blame it enough to vote for independence. If the current prediction of economic recovery is borne out it’s hard to see this position changing and I’d have my money on the Better Together campaign. However, if the economy tanks again, the search for scapegoats will be on in earnest. If that happens I think I’ll skip the visit to the bookies as the outcome is anyone’s guess. Could the Scots go? If they decide to blame the bad times on the Auld Enemy you just watch them. 

I might just go and see if I can find my haggis passport. Just in case.

John McGowan
Canterbury Christ Church University




Later this year the Scottish people will go to the polls and determine whether Scotland will maintain its place in the United Kingdom or part ways with the Union and begin life as an independent nation. Clearly, the social and political consequences of this vote will be far-reaching, and so understanding the factors that will determine the referendum outcome is of considerable importance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly all media coverage appears to centre on the geo-political issues: much North Sea black gold and political clout (such as EU membership) is at stake! But psychological factors are also known to influence political attitudes, and there is no reason to believe that Scottish independence is much different in this regard. With this in mind, can psychological theory and research contribute to an understanding of the Scottish referendum? 

Graeme Brown and I were intrigued by this possibility and set about collecting data shortly after the referendum was announced in the autumn of 2012 to explore how psychological factors might predict independence sentiment. A set of moral values scales recently developed by Jon Haidt and colleagues were of particular interest to us as they have previously been shown to predict political orientation. These moral values tap preferences for minimising harms/maximising fairness (often termed ‘individualising’), and concerns over group norms and rules (often termed ‘binding’). Previous work perhaps confirms intuition: higher individualising and lower binding tend to predict those who identify with the political left. 

We felt that this specific moral lexicon had considerable value as a means to characterise the psychological aspects of the Scottish independence movement. Nationalism is often noted to reflect right-wing characteristics; however, Scottish nationalism has typically been regarded as a left-wing movement. This gives rise to some interesting possible associations between preferences for independence and these moral values. On the one hand, if one considers desire for independence within the typical psychological analysis of nationalism (i.e. as a right-wing phenomenon), one would predict that higher concern for group norms (binding) and less concern for social justice (individualising) would predict the preference for Scotland to leave the Union. Conversely, if the preference for independence reflects the desire to generate a more left-wing political state, one would make the reverse predictions; namely, lower binding and higher individualising predicting desire for independence. Finally, one might expect that desire for independence might be more nuanced still, perhaps reflecting aspects of right-wing sentiment (e.g. concern for group cohesion and authority, coupled with heightened concerns over social justice).

So what did the data say? In short, higher individualising and lower binding significantly predicted independence sentiment. In other words, stronger moral sentiment for valuing individual rights and less concern for group norms and traditions appear to independently drive preferences for Scottish independence. These results are consistent with the common perception of Scotland as a left-wing nation. Moreover, these results suggest that those in favour of Scottish independence sit to the left of the political spectrum on at least two distinct components, demonstrating the importance of exploring this issue from multiple psychological vantage points.

What do these findings have to say about predicting the results of the referendum? Firstly, moral sentiment may provide a fairly decent barometer to the outcome of the vote on 18 September. Such results also suggest that political party appeals of a particular nature may be of special salience in this debate. For example, emphasising the possibilities that independence may bring for enhancing social justice may aid the SNP in confirming the support of those voters who highly value individualising. Of course, the reverse possibility also exists: those who favour maintaining the Union might choose to highlight to high individualisers that a larger union could better support a generous social welfare programme. At this stage the politics can become rather messy!

To close, while the economic and political issues surrounding Scottish independence will likely rule the media and politicians’ agendas for much of this debate, psychological factors should not be ignored, at least not by those who are seeking to understand the forces that drive individuals to one or the other side of the fence. Humans certainly vote selectively in order to secure their economic future; but they also care very deeply about their social institutions and how these institutions operate – albeit often in markedly different ways from each other – and these sentiments will almost certainly feed into any decision concerning the future of one’s nation.

Gary Lewis
University of York

Do you have an alternative view, or perhaps you come at this topic from a completely different perspective?

Continue the debate by e-mailing your letters to [email protected] or connect with us on Twitter @psychmag.





Dollard, J. et al. (1939). Frustration and aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lemma. A. (2003). Defences and resistance. In A. Lemma (Ed.) Introduction to the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy (pp.200–229). London: Wiley. 

McGowan, J. (2013, 15 April). We can’t let Maggie go [blog post]. Discursive of Tunbridge Wells. Retrieved from

Poppe, E. (2001). Effects of changes in GNP and perceived group characteristics on national and ethnic stereotypes in Central and Eastern Europe. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 1689–1708.

The New Yorker (2008, 6 October). Donna Brazile: ‘If I were running this campaign’ [Video file]. Retrieved from