Scottish Divergence: COVID-19 and Scottish Independence a Twitter Analysis

By Callum Duffy

During the pandemic, we found that a pro-independence stance in the public twitter discourse was strongest at points of significant policy deviation by the Scottish government from the U.K. government position (easing lockdown slower, entering a circuit breaker quicker). Our analysis of commonly used words also revealed that Brexit remained a highly motivating issue, particularly for users expressing a pro-independence stance. The contrast between the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic and that of the UK government is cited by pro-independence tweeters as a reason for supporting independence.

Methodology: We used Tweets from the Edinburgh’s COVID-19 tweet database. This is a set of all of the tweets produced that are categorised by Twitter as containing COVID-19-related information. Access to this dataset is provided in an ongoing fashion by Twitter from March 2020 as a response to the pandemic and granted to selected institutions.

To select tweets that refer specifically to Scottish Independence, we searched for tweets that contained keywords that indicated discussion around Scottish Independence. These terms were (normalised for case) indyref, indyref2, scottish referendum, scottish independence, independent scotland, scexit, scottish nationalism, and yesscotland. These keywords were identified using a random sampling of the tweets from leading figures in the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Elections. Certain keywords/phrases (e.g. bettertogether) had to be discarded as, on manual inspection, those phrases were found to refer more often to non-independence issues.

Tweets were gathered across 6-week long periods, with each period starting on a Monday:

First 16th of March, 2020 This week contained the start of the national U.K. lockdown
Second 11th of May, 2020 First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced Scotland would diverge from England as it exited lockdown
Third 8th of July, 2020 The Scottish Government announced that travellers returning from Spain and Serbia would be required to quarantine on arrival to Scotland, a divergence from the policy of the UK Government
Fourth 2nd of November, 2020 England entered a 4-week lockdown at the same time Scotland exited a 3-week lockdown
Fifth 16th of December, 2020 The Scottish government backtracked on a previous 4 nations agreement over Christmas rules, electing to change those rules and to announce a return to lockdown
Sixth 16th of March, 2021 A year on from the first lockdown. Taken to determine what extent the conversation surrounding Scottish Independence and COVID-19 had changed

We recorded the overall volume of the conversation surrounding Scottish independence. Then 99 tweets from each period were randomly sampled to ensure that results were statistically significant but that the sample size in each period remained constant. These selected tweets were manually annotated for Independence stance, for whether they expressed a view that was supportive/positive, against/negative, or neutral.

Results and Analysis

Overall, over 3,625 tweets were published during the 6 periods examined for this dataset. As shown in Figure 1. The low volume of tweets during periods 1 and 2 (59 and 159 respectively) suggest that, before major policy divergences between the UK and Scottish governments, Scottish independence did not factor heavily into the online discussion surrounding COVID.

The third, fourth, and fifth periods, saw far higher numbers, with 703, 592, and 939 respectively. All three of these periods coincide with periods of increased restrictions from the Scottish Government that ran counter to the U.K. Government’s approach. These periods, which displayed a heightened difference between the two Governments on the pandemic, saw a, 269%, 442%, and a 159% increase respectively in constitutional discourse about the pandemic from their prior periods.

Finally, the sixth period saw the highest number of tweets, with 1,172 being published. While this could have been heavily influenced by the impending election, it may also suggest that the events of the previous year had led to Scottish Independence entering the COVID-related discourse in a significant way.

As shown in figure 2. The volume of pro-Independence tweets is strongest at points of significant policy deviation by the Scottish government from the U.K. government position (easing lockdown slower, entering a circuit breaker quicker). We found, when analysing commonly used words, that Brexit also remained a highly motivating issue, particularly for users expressing a pro-independence stance. The Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic in contrast to the UK government’s is cited by pro-independence tweeters as a reason for supporting independence.

Below are the main points of focus in the twitter discourse for each group during each period.

Period Anti-independence Pro-independence
First The suspension of Independence campaigning The “divisiveness” of the Boris Johnson government
Second Criticism of Scottish Government pandemic policies Praise of Scottish Government pandemic policies and criticism of U.K. Government policies
Third Criticism of how an Independent Scotland would have dealt with pandemic economics Criticism of U.K. Government policies and criticism of Nicola Sturgeon not arguing for independence
Fourth Criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership Discussion of lack of powers surrounding the furlough scheme
Fifth Discussion of hypothetical business support in an independent Scotland and criticism of Nationalists desire for a referendum Brexit deadline and arguing for Scottish Government control of Scottish borders
Sixth Criticism of the Independence Referendum Bill Accusations of dishonesty from Nicola Sturgeon regarding Covid-19 and Alex Salmond, arguments suggesting the necessity of independence for Covid-19 recovery

The most significant support for independence was seen during the periods where policies by the Scottish Government (the first public divergence in period 2 and the English lockdown in period 4) highlighted divergence. Periods that saw less dramatic divergence, such as slight alterations to the travel corridor and Christmas easing rules in periods 3 and 5 saw anti-independence sentiment rise. This suggests that divergence was a motivating factor in driving independence-related Covid-19 discourse, but those in favour of independence were more motivated by more significant moments of divergence.

Both pro and inti-independence tweeters framed their arguments around perceptions of the then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic. During the coding of tweets it was observed that tweets expressing pro-independence sentiment furthered the argument that both First Minister Sturgeon and the Scottish Government had made better policy decisions than the U.K. Government. Tweet’s expressing anti-independence sentiment claimed a lack of competence, but were far more likely to refer specifically to the First Minister rather than the Scottish Government, suggesting they viewed Government policy as more closely tied to her personal brand. These tweets also make the case that the pandemic would have been worse had Scotland voted for independence in 2014.

The arguments from both camps are built around comparisons. For the pro-independence side, comparing the current U.K. Government to the current Scottish Government. For the anti-independence side, comparing the current Scottish Government to a hypothetical independent Government.