Why did Britain vote Leave? A Scottish addendum

Issue: 153

Donny Gluckstein and Charlie McKinnon

The previous issue of International Socialism included an excellent analysis of the Brexit vote by Charlie Kimber.1 Charlie argued that the vote to leave the European Union was a “bitter blow to the establishment”, that social class was a major indicator of who voted Leave, that the vote reflected people’s anger at the effects of neoliberalism and that (although it played a part) racism was not the central component of the Leave vote. We are in agreement with Charlie’s analysis and like Charlie we supported a vote for Leave on a left wing internationalist basis. But Charlie’s article inevitably focusses on the general UK vote. It therefore lacks detailed coverage of the Scottish result. Yet the contrast is stark. The UK voted 52 to 48 percent to leave, including every English region apart from London. Scotland voted 62 to 38 percent to remain, with all 32 council areas backing this view. Does this mean that the “very strong class element to the Leave vote”2 Charlie identifies, or the “roar of defiance against the Westminster elite”3 Diane Abbott referred to were absent in Scotland?

This brief analysis of the Scottish result will argue that the element of “rebellion” was present, but due to the peculiarities of Scotland’s recent political development they were expressed in a different way north of the border. To understand the differences one should remember that a referendum result is different from an election result in an important way. In an election several parties may be standing and so the distribution of votes across them gives a relatively differentiated picture of views. The EU referendum choice was Leave or Remain. As a result both sides will have included people motivated by widely varied viewpoints: racist and anti-racist; right-wing and left-wing; nationalist and internationalist and so on. The clearest evidence for this is the fact that large numbers of Labour and Tory supporters were to be found in each camp. So the analysis needs to focus not so much on specific political parties as what the referendum represented to voters.

One explanation for the difference in the way that people voted in Scotland in comparison to England and Wales is that the Scottish National Party (SNP) ran a very positive campaign in terms of what it perceived (wrongly) to be the benefits of remaining in the EU—a strong economy, better employment opportunities. Furthermore, in contrast to the racism that dominated both the official campaigns in England and Wales the SNP stressed the hugely important contribution that migrants make to the economy and was critical of the anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric that dominated the official Leave campaign but also permeated the Remain campaign.

Alex Salmond put it like this: “It’s a tale of two countries… They say that people who choose to live and work in our country are a problem and need to be kicked out. We say they’re an asset and must stay with us”.4

Similarly, in a speech to the Royal College of Nursing in Glasgow Nicola Sturgeon said: “I wish that people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage just once could acknowledge the immense contribution that migrant workers make to our NHS instead of demonising them at every turn”.5 Indeed, Sturgeon has demanded that as part of the Brexit process powers should be devolved to Scotland that enable the Scottish Government to attract immigrants.

However, even though it holds 56 of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland, the result cannot be explained by the SNP’s support for the EU. After all, a majority in the UK ignored the advice of the parties that make up 97 percent of the Commons—“most of the Tory leadership, Labour, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Sinn Féin”.6 Furthermore, surveys on attitudes to immigration have found that while Scotland tends to be more in favour of immigration than the rest of Britain, the difference is marginal and much less than the gap between the EU referendum results.7

The key point Charlie makes—that June’s referendum was not so much about the EU but an opportunity to express a protest against the status quo and that it expressed deep class discontent from below—holds as much in Scotland as elsewhere. The difference is the form that that protest took. This is largely due to the political trajectory of Scotland in recent years, and in particular the impact of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. That means class discontent was not expressed by voting to leave the EU to the same extent as it was in England and Wales.

The Scottish result is worthy of further scrutiny.

Turnout was about 6 percent lower in Scotland than in England (and if we take England and Wales together, the Scottish turnout was 5 percent lower). This may reflect the fact that both the official campaigns were seen by some people in Scotland as two sides of the same establishment coin. In other words lower turnout was a form of protest against the political (particularly Westminster) establishment. Table 1 shows that turnout was even lower in the poorer local authorities and lowest in Glasgow, the poorest local authority in Scotland. This may also reflect a more general apathy and disengagement from the political process in these areas.

Table 1: EU referendum: vote and turnout for Scotland and selected local authorities

Source: Electoral Commission, 2016.






1,661,191 (62 percent)

1,018,322 (38 percent)

67.2 percent


168,335 (67 percent)

84,474 (33 percent)

56.3 percent


39,688 (60 percent)

26,697 (40 percent)

63 percent

North Lanarkshire

95,549 (62 percent)

59,400 (38 percent)

61 percent

West Dunbartonshire

26,794 (62 percent)

16,426 (38 percent)

64 percent

If we look at the vote itself, some 38 percent (over 1 million) voters in Scotland voted Leave, a significant minority. However, not only did all 32 local authorities in Scotland vote Remain, if we drill down even further into the Scottish result, we can see that in Glasgow all seven parliamentary constituencies in the city voted Remain. By contrast, Chris Hanretty at the University of East Anglia estimates that 401 of 632 constituencies in Britain as a whole voted to leave.8 Does this mean that Charlie’s contention that the result was “a revolt against the establishment” does not apply to Scotland? This is best answered by analysing the result in the constituencies of Glasgow North (the most prosperous in the city) and Glasgow East (the poorest in the city).

Voters in Glasgow North were the most pro-remain in Glasgow polling a huge 78 percent with only 7,130 of the total 32,978 voting Leave. On the other hand Glasgow East (which includes Parkhead, Easterhouse and Shettleston, three of the poorest areas in the country) had the biggest Leave vote with 44 percent saying no to EU membership. Glasgow and Edinburgh were the only two local authorities in the UK to give a constituency breakdown of results but no results are available for wards. However, there is some evidence to suggest that there were very strong votes for Leave in some of the poorer wards in Glasgow and other local authorities. John Mason, SNP MSP in Glasgow East, said there was evidence that there was an “affluence versus deprivation” split in the vote. Like other observers at the count he was able to observe trends as the ballot boxes were emptied. He said: “The main thing I picked up on was poorer areas voting more to leave”. He went on to say that Blairtummock, one of the poorest communities in the constituency, voted by a majority to leave while Mount Vernon, one of the most affluent, was 60 percent in favour of Remain.9

Table 2: EU referendum result in selected Glasgow UK parliamentary constituencies

Source: Glasgow City Council, 2016.





Glasgow North

25,848 (78 percent)

7,130 (22 percent)

58.9 percent

Glasgow East

19,940 (56 percent)

15,564 (44 percent)

53.4 percent

It is clear then that there is a correlation between class and how people in Glasgow voted. In short, the more affluent were more likely to vote Remain and poorer people were more likely to vote Leave. It is reasonable to assume that this was the case in the rest of Scotland. The correlation is much weaker than in England and Wales but nonetheless the vote in Scotland can be seen as “a revolt against the establishment” particularly in the poorer areas.

One result that we might have expected in the EU referendum would be for higher votes for independence in 2014 to correlate with a higher vote for Leave—reflecting general disaffection with establishment politics. Conversely, if support for the SNP was a key factor in the EU referendum, we would expect the opposite—higher votes for Scottish independence correlated with a higher Remain vote. In reality neither pattern is discernible.

Readers of this journal will be aware that in the Scottish independence referendum the probability of voting Yes went up the poorer and more working class the area. Polls also showed a significant increase in the Yes vote as the campaign developed and moved in a radical direction beyond the format initially set out by the SNP. Thus for example Dundee, an industrial town which saw the sort of decline experienced in many of the northern English towns that voted heavily to leave the EU, saw the highest vote for Scottish independence at 57 percent. This time its vote to stay in the EU, at 60 percent, was below the average in Scotland. Conversely Edinburgh, a relatively wealthy city with a strong finance sector, had almost the lowest vote for Scottish independence at 38 percent but the highest to remain in the EU at 74 percent. But elsewhere there is no such pattern. The biggest region, Glasgow, for example, was above average in the Scottish independence referendum (at 53 percent), but was also above average to remain in the EU (at 66 percent).

There is no reason to believe that Scottish working class voters are any more content with their lot than further south. What seems to be happening is that the protest against their condition took the form for some of voting to leave the EU while for others it took the form of siding with the SNP insofar as it claims to be opposed to “the Westminster elite” from a social democratic direction (a false understanding, but one that is prevalent nonetheless).

The latest data from the British Election Study gives a further insight into why the vote in Scotland was so different from that in England and Wales. The latest data from the BES consists of over 30,000 interviews, including 3,600 conducted in Scotland, after the referendum. Analysing the data John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, argues that: “the sharp social divisions by age and educational background that were uncovered across the rest of Britain by the referendum are also in evidence north of the border”.10

If we take educational attainment (which is clearly related to class), 74 percent of graduates in Scotland voted Remain compared with only 41 percent of those with no educational qualifications. This gap in Scotland is smaller. Nonetheless the pattern is broadly similar to that in the rest of Britain.

Table 3: Support for Remain by Educational Attainment

Source: 2015 British Election Internet Panel Wave 9 (October 2016).

Percentage vote for Remain

No qualifications

Standard Grade (or equivalent)

Higher or equivalent







England and Wales





The data on immigration is particularly interesting given that this was the issue that dominated the referendum campaign. The difference here is more significant with 43 percent of voters in Scotland who thought that immigration would fall with Brexit still voting Remain compared to only 29 percent in England and Wales.

Table 4: Support for Remain by perceptions of the consequences of leaving the EU for immigration

Source: 2015 British Election Internet Panel Wave 8 and 9 (October 2016).

Expect Brexit to mean immigration would be:

Percentage vote for Remain






England and Wales



This may well be because (as noted earlier) the SNP ran a very positive campaign stressing the essential contribution that migrants make to the economy and how they enhance cultural diversity. Another factor may be that UKIP has less influence and less resonance with voters in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Moreover, given that the SNP dominate the political landscape in Scotland it is hardly surprising that, as Curtice argues: “SNP supporters were also more likely to vote Remain irrespective of their views on the consequences of leaving the EU”. He added: “62 percent of those SNP voters who thought that immigration would increase if the UK left the EU voted to Remain nevertheless…well above the equivalent figure for everyone of that view in Scotland (43 percent) and in England and Wales (29 percent)”.


The Scottish vote in the referendum therefore does not invalidate the general argument made by Charlie Kimber that the EU referendum gave poorer and working class voters an opportunity to kick back against years of austerity and alienation. However, it does show that in Scotland the vote embodied a number of overlapping and contradictory processes.

In 2014, after the Scottish referendum, Keir McKechnie wrote in this journal that:

The Yes vote [for Scottish independence] was a verdict on neoliberal Britain: 1.6 million people rejected the Union and, for a large majority of those, it was a rejection of it in favour of a different kind of society. In this sense it is important to stress that workers in England and Wales share the same anger and opposition to austerity and the corruption consensus in Westminster politics. The difference in Scotland at this juncture is that this anger and hope for real change has found its political voice through the referendum campaign.11

In 2016 the situation was the other way round. While the anger is shared, unlike Scotland, it was south of the border that, in however complex a form, “anger and hope for real change has found its political voice through the referendum”.

Yet that is not the end of the story. The very fact that the EU referendum result in Scotland was so different to the UK’s generates its own political momentum. While current opinion polls show support for Scottish independence is still lower than support for staying in the UK, any second independence referendum campaign would start from a much much higher base than was the case back in 2014.

If there is a new referendum the left will need to learn lessons from last time. A campaign dominated by the SNP and focussed on the (phoney) wonders of the EU would be disastrous and risk a second defeat. With tremendous energy the left successfully put anti-austerity at the forefront for much of the run-up to the 2014 referendum, but that was diverted into safe channels at the very end by Salmond. The Yes vote’s lead in the referendum polls evaporated, and while the SNP cleaned up electorally afterwards, it has proved just as capable of delivering cuts as its Labour predecessor in the Scottish government.

Furthermore, the legitimacy of Theresa May’s Tory government is weak and if there is economic turmoil then the volatility seen in 2014 and 2016 can be intensified still further. Another independence referendum is a distinct possibility and, as David Cameron learned to his cost, when ordinary people are given the chance to show their views outside of the straitjacket imposed by so-called parliamentary democracy, it is unsettling for the system.

Donny Gluckstein is a member of Edinburgh SWP and a trade union activist in the EIS. Charlie McKinnon is a member of the SWP in Glasgow. He is also an activist, retired teacher and a member of the EIS trade union.


1 Kimber, 2016.

2 Kimber, 2016, p27.

3 Kimber, 2016, p23.

4 Alex Salmond condemned the “intolerance of Theresa May’s Little England” in Stone, 2016.

5 Sturgeon: Brexit could have “‘profound consequences’ for NHS”—BBC News, 2016.

6 Kimber, 2016, p21.

7 Adams, 2015.

8 Hanretty, 2016.

9 Paterson, 2016.

10 Curtice, 2016.

11 McKechnie, 2014, p7.


Adams, Lucy, 2015, “‘No Difference’ in Immigration Attitudes, Politicians Claim”, BBC News (10 March), www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-31800374

BBC News, 2016, “Sturgeon: Brexit could have ‘Profound Consequences’ for NHS” (20 June), www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36575937

Curtice, John, 2016, “Why did Scotland Vote to Remain?”, What Scotland Thinks blog (18 October), http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2016/10/why-did-Scotland-vote-to-remain/

Electoral Commission, 2016, “EU Referendum Results”, www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information

Glasgow City Council, 2016, “European Referendum 2016 Glasgow Results”, www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=19666

Hanretty, Chris, 2016, “Revised Estimates of Leave Vote Share in Westminster Constituencies” (18 August), https://medium.com/@chrishanretty/revised-estimates-of-leave-vote-share-in-westminster-constituencies-c4612f06319d#.v6pxgbnjz

Kimber, Charlie, 2016, “Why did Britain Vote Leave?”, International Socialism 152 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/why-did-britain-vote-leave/

McKechnie, Keir, 2014, “Scotland: the Genie is Out of the Bottle”, International Socialism 144 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/scotland-the-genie-is-out-of-the-bottle/

Paterson, Stewart, 2016, “EU Referendum: Here is How Glasgow Voted”, Evening News (28 June), www.eveningtimes.co.uk/news/14583516.display

Stone, Jon, 2016, “Alex Salmond Condemns ‘Intolerance of Theresa May’s Little England’”, Independent (14 October), www.independent.co.uk/news/alex-salmond-snp-conference-theresa-may-immigration-policies-a7361781.html