Scotland has voted: A “No” with massive consequences. An early analysis of the independence referendum result 

By Jan Eich­horn.


After one of the longest, con­tin­u­ous cam­paign and dis­cus­sion process­es I have ever wit­nessed before a pub­lic vote, the Scot­tish pub­lic has decid­ed. 55.3 % have opt­ed for “No” on their bal­lot papers mean­ing that Scot­land will remain part of the Unit­ed King­dom. The turnout in this ref­er­en­dum was fan­tas­tic. After 50% in the last Scot­tish Par­lia­ment elec­tions and 64% in the last West­min­ster elec­tions, 84.6 % of eli­gi­ble vot­ers have tak­en part in this his­toric vote. This is aston­ish­ing and it means that many peo­ple who usu­al­ly feel dis­en­gaged and who nor­mal­ly only report low lev­els of polit­i­cal self-effi­ca­cy have engaged in this debate and vot­ed. Tra­di­tion­al gaps in vot­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion, with younger vot­ers as well as those in low­er socio-eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tions being much less like­ly to go to the polls, have been reduced sub­stan­tial­ly this time.

It is a ref­er­en­dum that in a true sense of the word fol­lowed a delib­er­a­tive process that I think many Scots can be proud of. Not only did the cam­paigns engage active­ly with vot­ers in many ways, but many parts of civ­il soci­ety did as well. From town hall meet­ings to debates in schools, from pub­lic expo­sure for aca­d­e­m­ic research to grass­roots organ­i­sa­tions run­ning reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves and neu­tral infor­ma­tion cam­paigns, only very few opt­ed to not engage in this process.

In the end, the major­i­ty of vot­ers decid­ed to remain part of the UK. There are some indi­ca­tions in the results from sur­veys and polls con­duct­ed before the vote that help under­stand why the no side may have held their lead. Through­out the cam­paign it became clear that the most impor­tant fac­tor dis­tin­guish­ing yes and no vot­ers was their eval­u­a­tion about whether an inde­pen­dent Scot­land would be eco­nom­i­cal­ly bet­ter or worse. When the polls rose in late August and ear­ly Sep­tem­ber to close much of the gap between the two camps, with a rise in inde­pen­dence sup­port, we also observed a par­al­lel increase in pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tions about the eco­nom­ic prospects of an inde­pen­dent Scot­land in most polls. How­ev­er, in the final polls, a larg­er group remained that thought that neg­a­tive out­comes were more like­ly. “Yes” won more peo­ple over dur­ing the cam­paign, but they did not con­vince enough peo­ple that an inde­pen­dent Scot­land could be pros­per­ous enough to suc­ceed in the way peo­ple desired. As I com­ment­ed on before based on our data from the Scot­tish Social Atti­tudes Sur­vey, there has always been a group of peo­ple favour­ing inde­pen­dence (which rose sub­stan­tial­ly from 2013 to 2014) that how­ev­er did not act upon that belief to actu­al­ly vote yes – main­ly because they were not con­vinced that their ide­al could be financed. Some of those appear to even­tu­al­ly have made up their minds for “No”.

That the polls became so close in the end with “Yes” ulti­mate­ly achiev­ing 44.7 % is quite remark­able. The “No” side start­ed with a strong advan­tage. As recent­ly as 2012 just over one quar­ter of Scots thought an inde­pen­dent Scot­land was the best way for Scot­land to be gov­erned and in the mid­dle of 2013 that num­ber still stood only at around 30%. So sup­port­ers of inde­pen­dence clear­ly man­aged to con­vince a lot of peo­ple about their ideas who pre­vi­ous­ly only favoured some form of devo­lu­tion. How did this hap­pen? As said, par­tial­ly, it was about strength­en­ing the eco­nom­ic argu­ment and relat­ing it to people’s vot­ing inten­tion. The cam­paign was most­ly not run on grounds of his­to­ry or nation­al­ism in an ide­o­log­i­cal sense – which meant that the focussing of vot­ers on prag­mat­ic eval­u­a­tions could be achieved (nation­al iden­ti­ty and vot­ing inten­tion only remained mar­gin­al­ly cor­re­lat­ed through­out the entire cam­paign). The “Yes” side also man­aged to bring the issue of social inequal­i­ty much high­er up on the agen­da. While in 2012 less than 50% of vot­ers who thought that an inde­pen­dent Scot­land would be a more equal soci­ety sup­port­ed inde­pen­dence, over 80% did in 2014. Sup­port­ers of inde­pen­dence suc­ceed­ed in par­tial­ly cou­pling the eco­nom­ic ques­tion with ques­tions about social equal­i­ty which helped them in devel­op­ing a for­ward look­ing image.

The “No” side was suc­cess­ful at the begin­ning to retain its advan­tage. It quick­ly man­aged to point to issues of uncer­tain­ty about core top­ics such as the cur­ren­cy, Europe, eco­nom­ic prospects and defence. The prob­lem in ear­ly 2014 was that they did not move on from that for a while. We need to remem­ber that at least 60% of vot­ers said they had made their minds up at the end of 2013 already (with about anoth­er 20 to 25% say­ing at the time that they already had a lean­ing). So “No” man­aged to get those peo­ple on its side for whom the uncer­tain­ty was too large and the prospects of inde­pen­dence to shaky. How­ev­er, they then repeat­ed the same mes­sages about the uncer­tain­ty relat­ing to Europe and the cur­ren­cy in par­tic­u­lar. But cru­cial­ly, on both issues, those who were not will­ing to accept uncer­tain­ty had large­ly already com­mit­ted to “No”. Fur­ther­more, on both issues there were only small dif­fer­ences between sup­port­ers and oppo­nents of inde­pen­dence. And final­ly, most peo­ple did sim­ply not believe either side about absolute state­ments that, for exam­ple, the cur­ren­cy sit­u­a­tion would not be nego­ti­at­ed. No there­fore stalled. The only time they man­aged to con­vince unde­cid­ed vot­ers was when they ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed pro­pos­als for fur­ther devo­lu­tion in the first half of 2014. But instead of con­tin­u­ing down this path, they refo­cused again on issues like the cur­ren­cy. Whether the final push by the lead­ers of the three large union­ist par­ties in the last two weeks moved peo­ple back to “No” can be doubt­ed. The polls did not move sig­nif­i­cant­ly in a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion dur­ing their vis­its and inter­ven­tions. It looks more like­ly that the advances “Yes” had made through­out 2014 were sim­ply not enough to con­vince a large enough group of vot­ers about the pos­i­tive prospects they saw for an inde­pen­dent Scot­land. The group com­mit­ted to a “No” was too large reflect­ing peo­ple who con­sid­ered the risks of inde­pen­dence too high. And while the eval­u­a­tions of eco­nom­ic con­se­quences had improved, there was always a larg­er group of peo­ple with scep­ti­cism than opti­mism about the eval­u­a­tions of an inde­pen­dent Scotland’s economy.

But with the high lev­els of civic engage­ment and the respons­es involv­ing all of the polit­i­cal elite in Scot­land and West­min­ster we should be ready for sub­stan­tial polit­i­cal debate affect­ing Scot­land, the rest of the Unit­ed King­dom and also Europe. Scot­land has promised sub­stan­tial fur­ther devo­lu­tion of pow­ers, but the exact pro­pos­als by rival union­ist par­ties dif­fer great­ly in extent and char­ac­ter. Those who think the Scot­tish Nation­al Par­ty would become obso­lete after los­ing the ref­er­en­dum have to be con­sid­ered naïve. They are like­ly to acknowl­edge the loss, but quick­ly con­tin­ue to point out that with­out this ref­er­en­dum Scot­land would not have been able to get in a posi­tion to nego­ti­ate such exten­sive lev­els of fur­ther pow­er trans­fers. And I have lit­tle doubt that the SNP will be the biggest cham­pi­on of trans­fers that approx­i­mate max­i­mal devo­lu­tion – far beyond what the oth­er par­ties have been offer­ing so far. The West­min­ster lead­ers will be remind­ed of the vast amount of promis­es they made and Scot­tish vot­ers will remem­ber those prob­a­bly in the upcom­ing gen­er­al elec­tions of 2015 and the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment elec­tions of 2016.

Con­se­quences from this ref­er­en­dum will not only affect Scot­land how­ev­er. The ref­er­en­dum cam­paign has also led to much stronger artic­u­la­tions of dis­sent with the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments else­where in the Unit­ed King­dom. If even more pow­ers are devolved to the sole author­i­ty of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment, the ques­tion why Scot­tish MPs can vote on mat­ters only affect­ing Eng­land in West­min­ster becomes even more promi­nent then it is at the moment – prob­a­bly lead­ing to an arrange­ment where dif­fer­ent types of votes could be held in West­min­ster, some affect­ing all of the UK and includ­ing all mem­bers of par­lia­ment, and some exclud­ing Scot­tish MPs on mat­ters ful­ly devolved. How­ev­er, although David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all promised more devo­lu­tion that does not mean their own par­ties are hap­py with those pro­pos­als. A num­ber of back­benchers in par­tic­u­lar in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty strong­ly oppose fur­ther trans­fers of pow­ers to the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment which will sure­ly cause sub­stan­tial debate in West­min­ster. Fur­ther­more, promis­es about retain­ing the Bar­nett for­mu­la, gov­ern­ing the allo­ca­tion of funds to the dif­fer­ent parts of the UK may prove pop­u­lar in parts of Scot­land, but has been greet­ed with sig­nif­i­cant oppo­si­tion by Welsh politi­cians who feel dis­ad­van­taged already and who fear that while Scot­land may get more pow­ers (after hav­ing threat­ened to leave), their own posi­tion could become more dif­fi­cult at the same time.

How all of this will affect the West­min­ster elec­tions in 2015 we can only spec­u­late about. Whether it has an influ­ence on sup­port for UKIP and whether a ref­er­en­dum about the mem­ber­ship of the UK in the Euro­pean Union could become more or less like­ly is too ear­ly to say. But cru­cial­ly, Scot­land and the rest of the UK will be going through a process of tran­si­tions fol­low­ing not only a his­toric ref­er­en­dum, but also a his­toric process of peace­ful and – with the excep­tion of some inci­dents in the final weeks of cam­paign­ing – most­ly very civ­il debate. Hope­ful­ly any delib­er­a­tions on the future of the UK will cre­ate sim­i­lar lev­els of engage­ment of a great vari­ety of peo­ple from all parts of society.

Dr Jan Eich­horn is the Research Direc­tor of d|part and also a Chancellor’s Fel­low in Social Pol­i­cy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh. He coor­di­nat­ed sur­vey research projects on polit­i­cal atti­tudes of Scots in rela­tion to the inde­pen­dence referendum.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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