Who should be eligible to vote in another Scottish referendum?

Richard Webber
5 min readJul 5, 2021

Scots living elsewhere in the United Kingdom should be allowed to vote in a second independence referendum. This is the argument which Cabinet Ministers are now making, according to a recent article in The Times.

Why shouldn’t they, many would ask? If Scotland becomes independent one assumes that Scottish ex-pats will be free to vote in Scottish parliamentary elections — just as French people residing in England can vote in French elections. And Brits living abroad were given a say on the 2016 EU Referendum, after all (as long as they had been out of the UK for fewer than 15 years).

On the other hand, there will obviously be suspicions that government plans are politically motivated, given that Scottish voters south of the border are said to be more likely to vote against independence than those north of it. Leading pollster Sir John Curtice predicts, in the original article, that Scots living in England could be sufficient to swing a referendum in favour of ‘No’.

How true is this and why is it the case? It is worth examining these questions in detail, using our Origins tool, to understand the dynamics better.

Origins uses name recognition to identify ancestry. It has been extensively tested and can predict the makeup of a group, in terms of ethno-cultural heritage, with a high degree of accuracy. It has repeatedly revealed clear patterns in behaviours and opinions.

We did work in 2013 and 2014 using the tool, to gauge the role of nationality and heritage in attitudes towards Scottish independence.[i] Whilst one might imagine that many of those in England who have Scottish names by now have only a weak association with Scotland (David Cameron bears a Scottish surname, let’s not forget), our analysis revealed that the origin of your name was, in fact, highly predictive of your attitude to independence.

Thanks to the time at which the fieldwork was carried out, polling on both sides of the border revealed a sizeable support for the ‘No’ campaign and for the union. But there were major differences between Scottish residents with Scottish names and those with English or Welsh names. The poll lead for ‘No’ was 16 points among the former compared with 29 points among the latter. In other words Scots in Scotland were more likely than non-Scots in Scotland to back independence — perhaps unsurprisingly.

However, when it came to those living in England and Wales the pattern was reversed. The poll lead in support of the union was 41 points among respondents with Scottish names living south of the border. This compared to 35 points among respondents with English or Welsh names. In short, Scottish named people living in England and Wales were more hostile to independence even than their non-Scottish counterparts.

All in all, the poll of those living in UK areas outside Scotland revealed support for the ‘No’ campaign/ the union which was 15 points higher than among those living north of the border (34 points compared to 19). Among those with Scottish names, however, this disparity was 25 points (41 compared to 16).

This suggests that the Cabinet Members’ assumptions are correct. Scottish heritage voters are deeply divided on this issue — depending on whether they live in Scotland or not. Scots currently residing elsewhere in the UK will be even more likely than their English and Welsh neighbours to back the pro-union cause.

The voting behaviour of those with Irish names is also fascinating, it should be said. Irish heritage people living in England or Wales tend to be just as supportive of the union as their English and Welsh counterparts. But those with Southern Irish names living in Scotland are more supportive of Scottish independence than any other group — including Scottish-dwelling Scots. Given that those with Irish names living in Scotland are likely to be Catholic, this may reflect the power of religious and sectarian fault-lines as a political predictor north of the border, especially in the big cities.

So, what do decision-makers do about the above conundrum? The practical problem which the Cabinet will have to address is how would one determine which Scots living in England or Wales should be entitled to vote in a Scottish referendum? Where is the line drawn?

According to our databases, just over 4 million adult residents in Great Britain bear Scottish names, as of April 2021. That’s 9%. Whilst the proportion with Scottish names is far higher in Scotland than in England and Wales (43% against 6%) there are numerically more people in England and Wales with Scottish names than in Scotland. This is thanks simply to the much larger population of England. Helpful as names are in identifying trends based on heritage and culture, enfranchisement based on names is clearly not a viable solution!

A more acceptable approach might be to apply rules similar to those that govern eligibility to play football for a national team of one of the four home nations. These rules currently allow any British resident to represent the country in which one or more grandparent was born. If this criterion were used then any British resident with one more grandparents born in Scotland would be entitled to vote in a second Scottish referendum.

A more liberal approach — and one which would be consistent with equalities legislation — would be to expand the system for electoral registration which currently requires electors to specify their country of nationality. They could be asked to complete an additional box to indicate whichever of the four home nations they identify with, and which they would like to have citizenship of in the event of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

In the event that Scotland were to become an independent country there is currently a very real risk that many millions of citizens will accidentally find themselves on the wrong side of a border which assigns them citizenship of a different nation from the one with which they identify.

[i] This involved analysing responses to two pieces of research by YouGov, in January 2013 and April 2014 respectively. The former poll surveyed 3,489 Scottish residents, the latter polled 4,395 residents in England and Wales. Both polls surveyed support for Scotland leaving the European Union. While the time gap between the two polls reduces comparability somewhat, it’s worth noting that the poll lead for ‘No’ remained steady throughout this period. It was only in the immediate weeks and months before the Referendum that this began to narrow — hence the results in both surveys are closer than the final outcome proved to be.