The Head or the Heart and Scottish Independence

During my PhD I examined Scottish identity and its relationship to independence. A coffee shop in the middle of Glasgow seemed as good a place as any and sat opposite me is the perfect person to explain – a traditional SNP supporter. He’s 50 years old and has supported the party for as long as he can remember. When I ask about the 2014 Independence Referendum he proudly states he voted for independence. I question why he thinks others didn’t. He pauses. “Hugh MacDiarmid” he says. “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”.

I look confused and so he explains. Hugh MacDiarmid was a poet and, along with similar writers such as Walter Scott, helped to portray this notion that for the Scots there are two choices; the head or the heart. His belief is that for too long the Scots have listened to the head, consisting of Britishness and the power and security it has long been perceived to bring. The alternative is the heart, what he sees as the ‘thistle’ or bedrock of Scottish identity – culture, history, traditions. In his view it was this psychological battle and ultimately the victory of the head over the heart which resulted in his fellow Scots failing to support independence. He tells me this with a profound sense of disappointment but also optimism.

Into this psychological battle steps the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Brexit, raising questions of whether Scottish identity is being further politicised. Whilst strong association with Scottish identity combined with weak attachment to Britishness has been shown to increase support for independence [1] my own survey research has shown that this dynamic does not relate to perceptions of the EU, with support for this conclusion from other research [2]. My Scottish interviewees often cited historical connections with Europe with these, amongst other aspects, instilling a sense of tolerance towards the EU. Tolerance is also the appropriate word given that my surveys showed Scottish identity did not relate to support for the institution but also did not relate to rejection of it. In this context, the SNP has once again begun to intently push for independence [3] with their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, emboldened in her bid for succession by Brexit [4]. This has highlighted the recent divide between Scotland and England – whilst the scots voted 38% to remain in the EU [5] England voted 53% to leave [6].

It is easy in this context to view the SNP as a partisan driver of identity politics in the UK given their attachment to Scottish nationalism. But the truth is that whilst these two phenomena are related they are also distinct – a point which the SNP have made great efforts to recognise. The Party has had to increasingly tread a careful line between positioning Scotland as dissimilar enough from the wider UK that it requires and deserves independence, whilst avoiding divisive identity-based connotations to their narrative. This is in no small part down to their careful cultivation of a broad church. Indeed, in the earlier days of the SNP supporters were often referred to as ‘Tartan Tories’ and the Party has made great efforts to shed this connotation – shifting towards the center-left of the political spectrum [7]. It has also mobilised a more civic and inclusive form of nationalism [8, 9].

But the combination of multiple groups in the Party with often different political views leaves it in a difficult position. The Party has to square its more open and tolerant temperament with a disparate membership and support base consisting of younger university educated civic nationalists and its more traditional membership who often display a hereditary or ancestral based conception of Scottish nationalism [10]. Nevertheless, the SNP have one trump card which unifies these two groups; independence.

My interviews with Scottish nationalists highlighted this point. They showed that for the majority of Scottish identifiers who desire independence Scottish identity serves as an important precursor for independence. For stronger proponents of succession the quest for independence is a deeper part of how they see themselves – serving a constitutive function for their sense of Scottish identity. Whilst these two groups would often differ on their specific conceptions of Scottish identity and the SNP, they were able to come together around the common goal of independence. This is in part because of the SNPs careful construction of a broad church between these two groups – simultaneously seeming to appeal to Scottish values of tolerance and left-leaning tendencies whilst offering traditional supporters a practical route to independence. In this sense the SNP’s broad-church approach and fostering of a more civic conception of nationalism works well. Its success can be most conspicuously seen in their landslide victory in last month’s general election – winning 13 additional seats in Parliament and taking their total tally to 48 out of 59 Scottish seats [11].

Brexit is also the gift which keeps on giving for Nicola Sturgeon given that it subtly displays the differences between Scotland and England. Meanwhile, the political crisis Brexit generated [12] has helped support the SNP’s narrative of Westminster incompetence and its failure to reflect Scotland or its people. This is likely to become more noticeable as we leave the EU and forge a new relationship with the bloc. Without a stronger feeling of representation for the Scottish voice and the nation’s political views in this discussion it is likely that support for independence will grow and the battle between the head and the heart will become less problematic.

[1] McCrone, D. and Bechhofer, F., 2015. Understanding National Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] McCrone, D., 2019. Who’s European? Scotland and England Compared. The Political Quarterly. 90(3). pp515-523.

[3] SNP, 2019. Will There be Another Independence Referendum? Scottish National Party. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21/11/2019].

[4] Sturgeon, N., 2019. The Longer we Stay in the UK, the More Damage Will be Done. Scottish National Party. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21/11/2019].

[5] Aisch, G., Pearce, A. and Russell, K., 2016. How Britain Voted in the EU Referendum. The New York Times. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 24/05/2019].

[6] Coles, M., and Kirk, A., 2016. EU referendum results and maps: Full breakdown and find out how your area voted. The Telegraph. [Online]. [Accessed 25/08/16].

[7] Clayton, T., 2002. Politics and nationalism in Scotland: a Clydeside case study of identity construction. Political Geography. 21(6). pp813-843. 

[8] Steven, M., Soule, D. and Leith, M., 2012. Scottish devolution and national identity. National Identities. 14(1). pp1-10.

[9] Mycock, A., 2012. SNP, identity and citizenship: Re-imagining state and nation. National Identities. 14(1). pp53-69.

[10] Zwet, A., 2015. Operationalising National Identity: the cases of the Scottish National Party and Frisian National Party. Nations and nationalism. 21(1). pp62-82.

[11] BBC, 2019. Scotland election results 2019: SNP wins election landslide in Scotland. BBC. [Online]. [Accessed 30/01/2020].

[12] McHarg, A., 2018. Navigating without maps: Constitutional silence and the management of the Brexit crisis. International Journal of Constitutional Law. 16(3). pp952-968.