The 2019 General Election was billed as “the Brexit Election” before the date had even been decided. With the UK parties lining up to pitch a vote for them as the best way of either “getting Brexit done”, “stopping Brexit altogether” or “giving the people the final say”, the question of the UK’s membership of the European Union appears unavoidable. 

In Scotland, however, there is not one, but two weighty constitutional questions for voters to grapple with. We are being asked to (re)consider not only our future relationship with the EU, but also with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The SNP’s call for a second referendum on Scottish independence next year (2020) has given an immediacy to this issue that was arguably lacking during the 2017 General Election campaign. 

At present, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties appear implacably opposed to a further referendum on Scottish independence, while the UK Labour Party has recently stated it would not consider another referendum for at least the next Westminster parliamentary term.

But which of these issues – Brexit or independence – are most likely to sway the votes of people in Scotland? 

Ipsos Mori’s pre-election polls regularly ask voters which issues they think will be very important in deciding which party to vote for.

The results of our new Scotland poll suggest it is not wrong to characterise this as a “Brexit election” – 56 per cent of those who expressed a party preference said Europe, the EU or Brexit was very important to them in choosing which party to vote for, making it the top issue mentioned by voters North of the Border.

In contrast, just 34% of Scottish voters mentioned Scottish independence or devolution as a key issue for them – putting it behind not only Brexit, but also the NHS (mentioned by 44%) in terms of salience.

However, the fact more people mention Brexit than independence as one of the “very important” issues influencing their vote does not necessarily tell you how people would weigh one against the other in terms of importance. 

When asked whether they think their vote will be influenced more by Brexit or Scottish independence, by both equally, or neither, exactly the same proportion of Scots said their vote would be influenced more by Scottish independence as said it would be influenced more by Brexit – 24% in each case. Overall, almost nine out of 10 say either Brexit, independence or both will influence their vote choice, with independence apparently weighing on the minds of voters in Scotland at least as much as Brexit. 

How influential are these constitutional issues when deciding how to vote? The Conservatives and Liberal Democrat s have each placed Brexit firmly at the heart of their campaigns, staking out opposing positions on the issue. Such clear signals are clearly resonating: those intending to vote Conservative (72%) and Liberal Democrat (79%) are indeed very likely to say Brexit will be one of the most important issues in their minds when casting their ballot. 

Brexit is also the top issue mentioned by SNP supporters (55%). However, they are more likely than those inclined to vote for other parties to say independence is very important to their vote (46%, compared to 31% of Conservatives, 17% of Labour supporters and 30% of Liberal Democrats).

Meanwhile, Labour supporters in Scotland appear to share their party’s conviction that this election should not be solely or mainly about constitutional questions – they are one of the few sub-groups in our data for whom Brexit is not the most commonly mentioned “very important” issue in our more open question on what will influence their vote – just 39% of Labour supporters mention Europe/Brexit. 

For Labour supporters, the NHS (mentioned by 67%) trumps both Brexit and Scottish independence in terms of key issues that will shape their decision. 
But in attempting to re-frame the central issues of this election away from contentious constitutional questions, the Labour Party may have struggled to connect with the Scottish voters for whom one or both of these issues drive political identities and vote choice. 

Our new poll indicates Labour’s share of the vote in Scotland has dwindled to 16% – historically low in a UK election. In contrast, the SNP is proving popular both with those who favour Scottish independence (85% of whom plan to vote for them) and those who would like to remain in the EU (52% of whom say they will vote SNP). And our poll puts them at 44% vote share – a level that would likely see them regain many of the seats they lost in 2017. 

At 26%, our estimate of the Conservatives’ share of the vote is within the margin of error of their 2017 vote share (29%), leaving much for them to play for at this stage. They are also by far the most popular party among those Scots who voted to leave the European Union (60% of Scottish leavers say they will vote Conservative).  

To the extent that this election is, as our data suggests, shaping up to be 
both a Brexit and an independence election, those parties offering the 
most definitive answers to these constitutional questions may well reap the benefits.

Rachel Ormston is Research Director for Ipsos Mori Scotland and Ailsa Henderson is Professor of Political Science at Edinburgh University.