Unionism in Scotland

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Unionism in Scotland is a political movement that seeks to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom in its present structure as one of the countries of the United Kingdom. It is part of the wider British unionist movement and is closely linked to British nationalism and the notion of Britishness. There are many strands of political Unionism in Scotland, some of which have strong ties to Unionism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland. Unionism is a movement often categorised primarily as being in opposition to Scottish independence.

Ahead of a referendum on Scottish independence, the main unionist political parties in Scotland joined to form Better Together in support of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The Union

The Union Flag, in addition to being the flag of the United Kingdom, also serves as a significant symbol of British Unionism.

The political union between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England (also including Wales as an English possession) was created by the Acts of Union, passed in the parliaments of both kingdoms in 1707 and 1706 respectively, which united the governments of what had previously been independent states (though they had shared the same monarch in a personal union since 1603) under the Parliament of Great Britain. The Union was brought into existence under the Acts of Union on 1 May 1707.

With the Act of Union 1800, Ireland united with Great Britain into what then formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The history of the Unions is reflected in various stages of the Union Flag, which forms the flag of the United Kingdom. The larger part of Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, however the separation of Ireland which originally occurred under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was upheld by the British Government and the Unionist-controlled devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland, and chose to remain within the state today, which is now officially termed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The 300th anniversary of the union of Scotland and England was marked in 2007.

Status of the term

Elizabeth II, current monarch of the United Kingdom

Unionism is the status quo in Scotland; it is not a single movement, and is not revolutionary. There are other uses of the term unionism in Scotland which, at least historically, took precedence. Amongst these is the name of the Unionist Party, which was the full title of the Tory party in Scotland before the organisation formally merged with the Conservative and Unionist Party in England and Wales in 1965, adopting the latter name. This party was often known simply as the Unionists. 'Unionist' in the names of these parties is rooted in the merger of the Conservative and Liberal Unionist Parties in 1912. The union referred to therein is the 1800 Act of Union, not the Acts of Union 1707.[1]

The term may also be used to suggest an affinity with Northern Irish unionism, rather than unionism in Scotland.

The former Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore MP has written that he does not call himself a Unionist, despite being a supporter of the union. This he ascribes to the Liberal Democrat position in regard to Home Rule and decentralisation within the United Kingdom, noting that: 'for me the concept of "Unionism" does not capture the devolution journey on which we have travelled in recent years.' He suggests the connotations behind Unionism are of adherence to a constitutional status quo.[2]

Unionism and political parties

Scotland's location (in dark blue) within the United Kingdom (in light blue)

The three largest and most significant political parties that support unionism in Scotland are the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative and Unionist Party, all of which organise and stand in elections across Great Britain. However, these three parties have differing beliefs about what Scotland's status should be, particularly in their support of devolution (historically Home Rule) or federalism.

The Conservatives, as a UK-wide party, fielded candidates in Scotland until the creation of a separate Unionist Party, which merged into the UK-wide Conservative Party in 1965. In 1968 the Declaration of Perth policy document committed the Conservatives to Scottish devolution in some form, and in 1970 the Conservative government published Scotland's Government, a document recommending the creation of a Scottish Assembly. Support for devolution within the party declined and was opposed by the Conservative government in the 1980s and 1990s, and remained opposed in the run up to the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum.[3] There is a small Scottish Unionist Party, which broke from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement It has no representation in either the UK or Scottish parliaments. Jacobitism, which took place across Britain, was supported from the outset by Tories in both England and Scotland, but became associated with Scottish nationalism, and was popularised as a key part of the Scottish national identity by the writings of Walter Scott, who was a unionist and a Tory.

The Labour Party has also had a mixed relationship with devolution. In 1950, it abandoned its previous support for Home Rule. Following the Kilbrandon Report in 1973 recommending a devolved Scottish Assembly, the Labour government of 1974–1979 introduced the Scotland Act 1978 to Parliament, which initiated a referendum on devolution. Failing to pass, the referendum was shelved. When the party returned to power in 1997, they introduced a devolution referendum which resulted in the enactment of the Scotland Act 1998 and the creation of the Scottish Parliament.[3]

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have previously been supportive of Home Rule as part of a wider belief in subsidiarity and localism.[4] The party is generally supportive of a federal relationship between the countries of the United Kingdom.[5]

Political opposition to unionism

Notable opponents of unionism in the Scottish Parliament are the Scottish National Party (SNP) who have formed the Scottish Government since 2007 and the Scottish Green Party.[6] The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Solidarity seek a return to Scotland being a sovereign state and a republic, independent of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of these parties, only the SNP currently has representation in the UK Parliament, which it has had continuously since winning the Hamilton by-election, 1967. The SNP and the Scottish Greens both have representation within the Scottish Parliament.

The support of Solidarity and the SSP of an independent socialist Scotland has been criticised by the Communist Party of Great Britain as being unsocialist.[7]

Other support of unionism

Rangers F.C. have traditionally drawn support from Scotland's unionist community.

In 2007, official celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the union of Scotland with England were muted, due to the proximity of the Scottish Parliamentary elections, which was two days after the date of the first meeting of the parliament of Great Britain on 1 May. The union has become a subject of great historical interest recently, with a number of books and television series being released. Surrounding January, the anniversary of the signing of the union treaty but not the actual incorporation, the issue was heavily covered by the media. A£2 coin marking the anniversary was distributed by the Royal Mint.

On 24 March 2007 the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, one body which has been vehement in its defence of the union, organised a march of 12,000 of its members through Edinburgh's Royal Mile to celebrate the 300th anniversary.[8] The high turnout was believed to be in part due to opposition to Scottish independence.[9] The Orange Order used the opportunity to speak out against the possibility of nationalists increasing their share of the vote in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. However, the SNP secured a plurality and a minority government under Alex Salmond following the election.

Scottish Orangemen marching in Larkhall

In the run up to the Scottish Independence referendum, which raised the possibility of Scotland becoming its own sovereign state independent of the United Kingdom, the Orange Order held a Unionist march and rally in Edinburgh which involved 15,000 Orangemen, loyalist bands and no voters from across Scotland and the UK. This was followed by a Unity rally by the "Let's Stay Together Campaign" in London's Trafalgar Square where 5,000 English people gathered to urge Scotland to vote "No" to independence. Similar events were held in other cities across the rest of the United Kingdom including in Manchester, Belfast and Cardiff.[10][11][12][13]

Ties to Unionism in Northern Ireland

There is some degree of social and political co-operation between some Scottish unionists and Northern Irish unionists, due to their similar aims of maintaining the unity of their constituent country with the United Kingdom. For example, the Orange Order parades in Orange walks in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, many unionists in Scotland shy away from connections to unionism in Northern Ireland in order not to endorse any side of a largely sectarian conflict. This brand of unionism is largely concentrated in the Central Belt and west of Scotland. Loyalists in Scotland are seen as a militant or extreme branch of unionism. Orangism in west and central Scotland, and opposition to it by Catholics in Scotland, can be explained as a result of the large amount of immigration from Northern Ireland.[14] A unionist rally was held in Belfast in response to the referendum on Scottish independence. Northern Irish unionists gathered to urge Scottish voters to remain within the United Kingdom.[10]

Scottish independence referendum

In a referendum held on 18 September 2014, voters in Scotland were asked the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?" The referendum would determine Scotland's relationship with the remainder of the United Kingdom. At the poll, 2,001,926 voters (55.3%) rejected the proposal for Scotland to become an independent state over 1,617,989 (44.7%), who voted in favour of Scottish independence.

The referendum results were accepted by the Scottish and British governments, leading to Scotland remaining a devolved part of the United Kingdom. Further moves have since been made towards increased devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, which is to be incorporated in to UK law via the Scotland Act of 2016.

Results of the referendum

A map denoting the results of the Scottish independence referendum (2014) sorted by council area, where saturation fo colour denotes strength of vote, red denotes 'No' and green denotes 'Yes'.

The referendum results shifted the dynamic of politics in Scotland.

At the referendum a total of 4 out of 32 council areas voted in favour of independence, these being: North Lanarkshire (51.1% Yes), Glasgow (53.5% Yes), West Dunbartonshire (54.0% Yes) and Dundee (57.3% Yes). Orkney (67.2% No), Scottish Borders (66.6% No), Dumfries and Galloway (65.7% No) and Shetland (63.7% No) returned the largest No votes.

Generally, the Yes campaign performed strongly in deprived urban settings, such as in Greater Glasgow and Dundee, with the No campaign performing better in affluent rural and suburban areas, such as in Aberdeenshire and East Renfrewshire. The campaign saw large shifts in favour of independence in areas traditionally held by the Scottish Labour Party at the Scottish and British parliaments, with the Yes campaign performing strongly in Red Clydeside. The No campaign performed better in affluent areas traditionally held by the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Conservatives such as in East Dunbartonshire and the Scottish Borders. Surprisingly, the No campaign were able to secure a set of sizeable majorities in some council areas which have traditionally voted Scottist Nationalist, such as in Moray and Angus, where the 'No' vote was 57.6% and 56.3% respectively.


Public opinion polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft after the Scottish independence referendum found that approximately 70% Scotland's Protestant population voted against Scottish independence over 43% of Roman Catholics, who voted majority in favour of Scottish independence.[15]

This can be supported by census data which demonstrates that of the four council areas with the highest % Roman Catholic population, three voted in favour of independence – these being North Lanarkshire (35% Roman Catholic), West Dunbartonshire (33%) and Glasgow (27%). Inverclyde houses the largest proportion of Catholics in Scotland at 37% and narrowly rejected independence by a margin of 50.1% No to 49.9% Yes. In terms of national identity, 6.77% of Church of Scotland Christians said they were "British only" and 24.79% said they were "Scottish and British only" at the 2011 Scottish census, compared with 5.28% of Roman Catholics, who identified themselves as "British only" and 13.89%, who described themselves as "Scottish and British only".[16]

National Identity

Polling suggests that in January 2014, when forced to choose a single identity, 65% would describe themselves as "Scottish" whilst 23% would call themselves "British" – 2% identified themselves as "English". Over recent years, the figure for "Scottish" only has slowly declined after reaching a height of 80% in 2000 – the figure for 2014 has been the lowest for at least 15 years. The largest figure for choosing "British" was 24% in 2013, followed by the figure for 2014.[17] Almost a third of people described themselves as "Equally Scottish and British" whilst a fourth described themselves as "Scottish not British" and another fourth as "more Scottish than British" – at the same time 5% of people described themselves as "more British than Scottish" whilst 6% said they were "British not Scottish". This is the highest recorded level of British sentiment in Scotland since 1997 – trends suggest that the figure is slowly increasing across time.[18] A poll commissioned by ICM and the Guardian in December 2014 after the independence referendum found the largest level of British identity ever recorded in Scotland. When asked "Would you rather describe yourself as British or Scottish?" and given the choice of answering with "British", "Scottish" or "Other" as their national identity, 36% of respondents stated that they were "British" – a rise of 13% from January 2014. 58% of respondents state that they were "Scottish" – this is 7% lower than the figure in January 2014. A second poll conducted for 19 March 2015 found 31% of respondents would describe themselves as British – a fall of 6% – and 62% Scottish, which rose by 4% since January.[19]

Support for independence

Various studies and opinion polls commissioned by members of the British Polling Council following the Scottish independence referendum have attempted to track support for independence in Scotland following the Scottish independence referendum in 2015. A majority of said polls have suggested that more Scots would chose to remain part of the United Kingdom over voting in favour of independence in the event of a second independence referendum.[20]

Support for the union is more prevalent among those in Social Grade ABC1 and those aged 65 and over. Support for independence is higher in Social Grade C2DE and voters aged between the ages of 25-39.[21]

List of unionist organisations in Scotland

The following is a list of active political parties and organisations in Scotland who support the union.

Parties with parliament/local government seats
Other parties
Other groups

See also


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  2. "Michael Moore MP writes: I am not your average unionist". Libdemvoice.org. 21 December 2011. Retrieved 22 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2009/11/26155932/3
  4. "Microsoft Word - Steel Commission Report March 2006 formatted.doc" (PDF). Retrieved 22 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  7. [1] Archived 20 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine
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  10. 10.0 10.1 Spiro, Zachary. "'Day of Unity' grassroots rallies across the UK". Daily Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 22 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  25. British National Front website. What we stand for. "We stand for the continuation of the UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND – Four Countries, One Nation. Scotland, Ulster, England and Wales, united under our Union Flag – we will never allow the traitors to destroy our GREAT BRITAIN!". Retrieved 11 September 2014.
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