BSA39: Britain more politically polarised than ever over Scottish independence

British Social Attitudes: Britain more politically polarised than ever over Scottish independence 

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) is today publishing its 39th annual British Social Attitudes report.

This year’s survey examines where the public throughout the UK stands on the formidable challenges that politicians and policymakers will have to continue to address after the country emerges from a period of national mourning.

Britain more politically polarised than ever over Scottish independence

Supporters of the two biggest parties in Scotland, the SNP and the Conservatives, are more divided than ever over the question of how Scotland should be governed.

Likewise in England, Conservative and Labour supporters have increasingly drawn apart from each other in their attitudes towards Scottish independence.

  • 82% of SNP supporters in Scotland now back Scottish independence, compared with only 5% of Conservative supporters.
  • The gap between supporters of the two parties on this issue has grown from 46 percentage points in 2012 to 77 percentage points today.
  • In 2011 around a quarter of Conservative supporters (24%) and Labour supporters (25%) in England said that Scotland should become independent.
  • Now almost twice as many Labour supporters (30%) as Conservative supporters (16%) express that view.

Growing divide between Scotland, England and Northern Ireland over future of the United Kingdom

In addition to growing party political divisions, people in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have grown further apart in their views on the future of the United Kingdom.

Support in Scotland for Scottish independence and in Northern Ireland for Irish reunification has increased in recent years. Meanwhile, people in England would prefer both Scotland and (increasingly) Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.

  • Asked to choose between independence, devolution and no Scottish parliament, just over half of people in Scotland (52%) favour independence, up from 23% in 2012.
  • Only one in four (25%) in England think that Scotland should be independent, unchanged from 2012.
  • For the first time, in Northern Ireland support for being part of the UK has slipped to slightly below half (49%). Support in Northern Ireland for Irish reunification has increased from 14% in 2015 to 30% now.
  • Meanwhile, 49% in Britain now believe that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK, almost twice as many as the 26% who expressed that view in 1998.

NHS under pressure: People in Scotland more concerned about health inequalities and the need for a universal health service

Earlier this year, our British Social Attitudes survey revealed that satisfaction with the health service had fallen sharply in 2021 to its lowest level in 25 years. Today’s report compares attitudes towards the health service in Scotland and England.

Against a backdrop of challenges facing the NHS and debate over the future of Scotland’s constitutional status, our survey finds people in Scotland are more willing than people in England to pay higher taxes to improve the level of health care for everyone, and more likely to say it is unfair that wealthier people can afford better health care.

  • Long waiting lists stand out as a major barrier to getting care in both Scotland and England. Around a quarter in Scotland (24%) and England (26%) say they did not get the medical treatment they needed during the past 12 months due to long waiting lists.
  • 64% of people in Scotland say it is unfair that wealthier people can afford better health care – compared with 54% in England.
  • 63% of people living in Scotland are confident of receiving the best treatment available if they became seriously ill – compared with 56% in England.
  • 55% of people in Scotland and 51% in England say they would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve the level of health care for everyone.
  • 37% of people in Scotland say their confidence in government has increased due to the Scottish government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 20% of people in England say this about the Westminster government’s handling of the pandemic.

More people than ever support electoral reform in Britain

Divisions over constitutional issues have grown not only in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but also for elections to Westminster.

For the first time in the survey’s history, across Britain as a whole more people favour introducing proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons than keeping the voting system as it is. This is largely the result of an increase in backing among Labour supporters.

  • 51% in Britain are in favour of electoral reform, while 44% would prefer to keep the voting system for elections to the House of Commons as it is.
  • For the first time a majority of Labour supporters (61%) now favour electing MPs using proportional representation, up from 27% in 2011.
  • 69% of Liberal Democrats, but only 29% of Conservatives, favour electoral reform.

Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, said: “Supporters of the major parties in Scotland and England are more polarised than ever over the question of how Scotland should be governed, something that will not make it easier to secure widespread assent to whatever outcome emerges from the current debate. Support for leaving the UK has also grown in Northern Ireland, while more people than ever want to change the voting system in Westminster, making the issue of how the United Kingdom should be governed more contentious perhaps than ever before. The new government faces a particularly formidable challenge in bringing the Union together.

Meanwhile, at a time when the health service is widely thought not to be providing the service that people need and expect, there are signs that people in Scotland are more concerned about protecting the NHS and more willing to pay higher taxes to improve the level of health care for all. Strengthening the right to health in Scotland and tackling deep-rooted inequality will no doubt feature heavily in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional status.”


For more information please contact:

Oliver Paynel, Communications Manager
National Centre for Social Research
t: 0207 549 9550, m: 07734 960 071, e:

Katie Crabb, Head of Marketing and Communications
National Centre for Social Research
t: 0207 549 8504, e:

Notes to editors

1. British Social Attitudes (BSA): the 39th Report will be published on 22nd September 2022 at Advance copies of chapters from the report available on request. The editors are Sarah Butt, Elizabeth Clery and John Curtice. The views expressed in the report are those of the authors and editors alone.

2. The full list of chapters in this year’s report: Taxation, welfare and inequality; Constitutional reform; Culture Wars; Regional differences in values; Environment and climate change; Disabled people at work; NHS and social care; The NHS in Scotland and England.

3. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey has been conducted annually since 1983. Each year the survey asks around 3,000 people what it's like to live in Britain and what they think about how Britain is run. Since 1983 more than 115,000 people have taken part in the survey.

4. The 2021 BSA survey consisted of 6,250 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Great Britain and was conducted between 16 September and 31 October 2021.

5. This year’s BSA survey was completed online by a representative sample of respondents who were invited at random by post. There was an option to be interviewed by phone if preferred. This is the same design as used in the 2020 BSA. Prior to 2020 BSA was a face-to-face survey, but this was changed as a result of the public health measures introduced in the wake of the pandemic. The report also uses data from ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, and the separate Northern Ireland Life and Times survey

6. The National Centre for Social Research is grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council (grant reference ES/T005521/1) for their financial support which enabled us to ask the questions on health care in Scotland and England. The questions were asked via the NatCen Panel as part of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). The survey consisted of 2,130 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Scotland (1,144 people) and England (986 people) between 28th July and 29th August 2021. The author of this research, Dr Chris Deeming at the University of Strathclyde, was supported by a UKRI COVID-19 award – ES/W001187/1.

7. Respondents are classified as identifying with a particular political party on one of three counts: if they consider themselves supporters of that party; closer to it than to others; or more likely to support it in the event of a general election.