Professor Charles Pattie writes widely on electoral issues, and is an author of two books on recent Scottish politics, including a study of the 1997 devolution referendum. He is also a Scot…..
Scotland’s independence referendum on 18 September 2014 is a very strong contender for the most momentous vote in modern British political history. Heretical though it might be to say so, most general election results are relatively limited in their consequences: such is the degree of policy continuity from one government to another that even a change of government has relatively little effect. If you doubt this, think of those two exemplars of 20th century radical, reforming government: Clement Atlee’s 1945-1951 Labour government, and Margaret Thatcher’s 1979-1990 Conservative government (the Major years till 1997 were a much less radical coda to what went before). They did more than most governments to change the political tide. Yet the basic architecture of the Welfare State which the Atlee government ushered in had already been established by the wartime coalition, while the Thatcher government was not the first to adopt monetarist economic policies – they were beaten to that punch by Jim Callaghan and Labour in 1976. In the long term, general elections are mere ephemera. A stronger contender, perhaps, is the 1975 referendum on membership of what is now the EU: that changed Britain’s geo-economic and geo-strategic outlook fundamentally, and the shock waves continue to dominate British politics now, much to Mr Cameron’s chagrin and Mr Farage’s glee. But important though that vote was, it was always in principle reversible: it did not preclude a future decision to leave the EU again – as we may yet find should the Conservatives win the next UK General Election and put into effect their promise to hold an in-out referendum.
But none of these offers quite the same degree of finality as a ‘Yes’ vote in the independence referendum: that would bring to an end the 307-year old political union of Scotland with the rest of the UK. Once out, it is very unlikely that there would be any prospect of Scotland returning to the UK fold at a later date. Almost uniquely among most ballots in the UK, this really is a potential game changer, a vote with genuinely once-and-for-all consequences.
This isn’t just historically momentous. It is personal too. As a Scot who moved south over 30 years ago, only a few years after the failed 1979 devolution referendum, and who has lived in England ever since, I find myself in the frustrating position of having a vested interest in the result – depending on the outcome, my country, nationality and passport could all change – but having no say in the decision (only voters currently resident in Scotland can vote on 18 September). Like the rest of the UK, I am a bystander. Like other expatriate Scots, all I can offer are home thoughts from … where? Not really ‘abroad’ as I still live in the same country – the UK – as I always did. But at least ‘home thoughts from another home, Browning’s England. With just over a week to go, here they are.
So this is a vote which (unusually) really matters. But how are things looking with over a week to go before the event? What can we learn from the evidence so far? The campaign to date has already scotched (pardon the pun) some myths about modern politics. But it is also worth tackling a few which risk building up around the referendum itself.
Myth 1: People are apathetic about politics.
Granted, party membership has tumbled in the UK and in other democracies over the last half century. Turnout in British elections has been very low by post-war standards since at least 2001: only 65% voted in the 2010 general election, for instance, as did 51% in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and 35% in the 2014 European Parliament election: compare this to turnouts of almost 80% as recently as the 1992 General Election). Things reached a nadir on 22 August this year when only 10% of voters in the West Midlands bothered to vote for their new Police Commissioner. So we are a politically apathetic nation, aren’t we?
Oh no we’re not! The acid test is whether an election matters. Recent general elections have either been very one-sided (in 1997 and 2001) or have occurred when voters could see little difference between the major parties: as the old adage goes, it doesn’t matter how or if you vote, the politicians always win. The European Parliament is not, with the best will in the world, even remotely close to being the centre of EU power and decision making. And Police Commissioners – don’t even go there!
But as discussed above, the independence referendum really is an election which matters. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that the fate of nations (or at least of Scotland and the UK) depends on it. How much more serious are you likely to get? It is hardly surprising, therefore, that – despite almost two years of relentless campaigning on the issue in Scotland since the referendum was first broached – all indications are that the vast majority of voters north of the border are actively engaged in the debate. In a world where local campaign meetings are often thought to be dead in the water, attendances at meetings and rallies for both the Yes and No campaigns have been relatively high and people have been vocal.
And polling suggests that turnout in the referendum itself could be very high. Recent polls have asked Scottish voters to rate how likely they are to vote in the referendum on a scale running from 0 (definitely would not vote) to 10 (definitely would vote). Very high percentages are reporting a definite intention to vote: the most recent YouGov poll to ask this, conducted on 1 September, just under three weeks before the campaign, reported 89% saying they would definitely vote. This does not mean that turnout will reach 90% (no UK vote in living memory has had a turnout that high): non-voters tend not to respond to surveys, artificially inflating the apparent turnout, and at least some of these expressing a definite intention to vote in polls before the event will not in fact do so). Even so, it does point to a very high turnout (to put it into context, a similar question was asked by the British Election Study just a month before the 2010 election: 70% then said they would ‘definitely’ vote in the upcoming election – the actual turnout was just 65%). Whatever else is happening, Scottish voters clearly are not being apathetic about the independence referendum.
This does raise an intriguing side issue. Paradoxically, as turnout increases, the Yes and No campaigns may actually begin to matter less. Most voters have by now made up their minds on the issue, and only about 10% or so are now telling pollsters they have not decided how they will vote. At that point, there is little more the campaigns can do to win over new supporters, so the battle shifts to ensuring that one’s own committed supporters actually do turn out on the day. But if turnout is very high overall, the relative advantage to be gained from fighting more effective ground campaign declines: if almost everyone votes, differential turnout matters less than if fewer do so.
Myth 2: This is all about the rise of Scottish nationalism, isn’t it?
Not quite! As the graph below shows, since the SNP made its breakthrough into mainstream politics in Scotland in the 1960s and early 1970s, support for the party has fluctuated up and down (Westminster elections are picked out as blue diamonds: elections for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood as red asterisks). There certainly has not been an inexorable rise of nationalism north of the Tweed. The party has done well in recent Scottish Parliament elections. It emerged as the largest party in 2007 with 31% of the vote, enabling it to form the first – minority – SNP government in Scottish history and eclipsing Labour, the dominant party in Scottish politics for over half a century). It followed this up with an even more remarkable win in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, when it secured an overall majority of MSPs for the first time, on 44% of the vote). But these triumphs in Holyrood were dovetailed between much more mediocre results in Westminster elections: 18% in 2005 and 20% in 2010. The party’s recent Holyrood success owes at least as much (possibly more) to valence politics – voters support governments which prove competent and effective and punish those which are seen to fail – as to innate nationalist sentiment.
That said, it was the SNP victory in 2011 that put the referendum on the agenda. Holding a referendum had been a manifesto commitment for the party going into that election. Having won, they could hardly back down without losing face.
Nor is it the case that most Scots have, in their hearts, abandoned the idea of Britain and Britishness. National identity is a social science minefield. But it is a much more complex and nuanced thing than simple ‘either/or’, ‘British or Scottish’ dichotomies can ever capture. When given the chance to express their views in this way, most Scots have, for many years now, readily expressed a sense of holding multiple identities simultaneously and comfortably. One of the best-known expressions of this is the so-called Moreno question, a survey question designed by a Spanish political scientist to capture just such multiple identities. In its Scottish manifestation, the Moreno question offers survey respondents a national identity scale. At one extreme, they can describe themselves as exclusively ‘Scottish not British’. At the other, they can opt to be described as totally ‘British not Scottish’. But in between, they can self-identify with different mixes of Britishness and Scottishness. The most recent survey I can find asking this question is a YouGov poll which ran in Scotland in April 2014. The figure below shows what people said. Not surprisingly, all bar a handful saw themselves at least as Scottish as they were British: only one in five saw being Scottish as a minor or as no part of their national identity. But here’s the thing: only a few months before the referendum, three times as many Scottish residents saw themselves as at least in part British as saw themselves as exclusively Scottish. And that has been the picture for many years now. Whatever else is going on in the referendum debate, it isn’t an upsurge of simple ethnic nationalism.
Myth 3: It’s all a storm in a teacup: the No campaign is bound to win
Given the absence of a simple ethnic upsurge and the clear evidence of a persistent sense of Britishness among most Scots, my third myth might seem quite reasonable. If most Scots feel at least in part British (and they do – the evidence doesn’t lie), the Yes campaign must be doomed: surely the No campaign is bound to win? After all, it is well known that many in the SNP initially favoured a more complicated ballot for the referendum, offering Scottish voters three choices: the status quo, Devo Max (increased powers for the Scottish Parliament but remaining within the UK); and outright independence. The calculation was that (as polls persistently showed) support for independence was a minority taste. But there was widespread support for Devo Max, and this would probably have won in a 3-way competition. That would have allowed the SNP to save face (‘we promised a referendum, and we delivered’) and, in the event of a defeat for the ‘independence’ option, would have given them a credible fall-back claim for success (‘we levered extra powers out of Westminster’). By insisting on a simple Yes/No choice for the referendum, Prime Minister Cameron was gambling on independence remaining a minority taste (support for the Union is an important element of Conservative thinking and the Conservatives campaigned for many years in Scotland as the Conservative and Unionist party: Mr Cameron does not want to go down in history as the Conservative PM who oversaw the breakup of the UK).
And that, by and large, has been the received wisdom all along. As the figure below demonstrates, poll after poll since early 2013 has shown a consistent ‘No’ majority (as did polls before then too). That said, the gap has narrowed – and critically it has done so in the closing weeks of the competition. Ever since the second televised debate between the leaders of the Yes and No campaigns, Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling on 25 August, the momentum of the campaign seems to have switched to the Yes camp. It is still behind, but it is closing the gap. The first poll to show this – a Survation poll on 28 August – could have been an anomaly: Survation has on average produce some of the narrowest estimates of the gap between the two camps of any mainstream polling organisation. It would have been a brave/foolish analyst who would have insisted that this by itself was evidence of a tightening competition. But that was followed on 1 September by a YouGov poll which showed an almost identical margin – and YouGov has on average tended to show relatively large No majorities. Even more sensationally, two further polls, on the 4th and 5th of September (the former from Panelbase, the later from YouGov) now put the Yes and No campaigns virtually neck and neck. Most sensational of all, the Yougov poll gave the Yes campaign an ultra-slim lead (51% to 49%) – the first time any major polling company’s results have ever shown majority support for Scottish independence. One poll showing a tightening race could be a statistical blip, two is an indication, and four start to look like a trend.
Even if the 5 September Yougov poll turns out to be a rogue poll (it still could be: anyone old enough to remember the 1987 and 1992 elections, for instance, will remember polls which seemed to indicate a Labour lead – only to see that evaporate on polling day into a clear Conservative win), it is hard to underestimate just how important this narrow Yes lead really is. Just to re-iterate, NO major polling company has EVER shown majority support for independence before. For the Yes campaign, this is a psychologically important moment. The biggest battle the Yes campaign has faced has been persuading people that a majority really do support independence. Now that seems to have been achieved, it begins to ‘normalise’ the idea: momentum is now very much with the Yes campaign. For the No campaign, meanwhile, this is a serious blow, carrying the distinct impression that support is ebbing away from them. It could still work to their advantage in the short term, as it is likely to galvanise any remaining no voters who thought their ‘side’ was bound to win and so were unsure about whether it was worth their voting in person. Now every vote really does count. The race is now too close to call. We really could be just under a fortnight away from the beginning of the end for the UK. So the expectation of an easy win for the No campaign looks as though it is becoming a myth too.
This, of course, begs a question: if (myth 2) the referendum debate is not riding on an upsurge of Celtic nationalism and most Scots still feel at least in part British, why has the Yes campaign apparently closed the gap? Part of the answer to that takes us back to the SNP’s rather different recent performances in Westminster as opposed to Holyrood elections. An important focus of the debate has become the sort of society Scots want. While (Myth 4) it is not the case that Scots are particularly further to the left politically than people in the rest of the UK, many Scottish voters do have strong concerns over austerity, the future of the welfare state, relationships with the EU, and so on. That most ‘welfare state’ issues involve devolved powers and are now the responsibility of the Scottish Government only exacerbates the issue, as Scottish public policy increasingly diverges from what is happening in England. There is at least an argument for saying that some potential Yes voters are opting for that choice in defence of an alternative vision of Britishness to that they think is being promoted by the Westminster government – a social democratic, welfarist model which leans more towards European practices as opposed to a neo-liberal Anglo-American model. To the extent that this is the case, one could argue that some Yes voters are opting for independence not because they want to leave the UK, but because they fear the UK (or at least that part of it not covered by the Scottish government) has left them.
Myth 5: If Scotland becomes independent, expect semi-permanent Conservative domination of politics in the rest of the UK
A persistent myth, this, most often heard outside of Scotland (with an implicit plea of “Don’t go, we need you” from Labour supporters and some Liberal Democrats, and with a frisson of expectation from some Conservative supporters), but sometimes heard within Scotland too (often as a stark warning from those Yes campaigners who are on the left politically: “this is what we want to save ourselves from”). Let’s bat this one away quickly. It’s rubbish and to believe it, you have to suffer from rather severe short term political memory loss. New Labour (remember them?) won three UK general elections back to back in 1997, 2001 and 2005 with substantial parliamentary majorities. More to the point for myth 5, they would have won all three UK elections even if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had all gone, leaving England as the sole remaining country in the UK. In 1997 and 2001, Labour was comfortably the largest party in England in terms of both vote share and number of MPs. In 2005, it would still have had a workable overall majority of MPs in England alone, even though the Conservatives gained slightly more votes overall (a result of the pro-Labour bias which has typified the UK electoral system since 1992, but that is another story). And that’s before we add in the Welsh and the Northern Irish MPs. No matter how you cut the evidence, the conclusion is the same: Scottish independence, should it come, does not guarantee any particular electoral outcome in the rest of the UK.
One final thought. Whatever the referendum outcome, recent polling suggests a close result. Scotland will emerge from this debate a divided country. It will be divided between Yes and No camps. And it is likely there will be divisions between urban and rural Scotland. In both the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums, for instance, support for devolution was lower in the Borders and the Highlands and Islands than in the urbanised central belt where most Scots live: voters in the more remote areas feared dominance by Glasgow and Edinburgh. It might not happen this time, but watch, as the results come in, how the more rural areas vote. They may be the cultural heartlands of some forms of Scottishness, but will they embrace the independence call as strongly as their urban counterparts?
And if (as the polls now suggest it will be) the result is close, a large minority of voters are liable to feel disgruntled and dissatisfied. A narrow ‘Yes’ victory will mean a newly independent Scotland will have to work hard to win over a large minority who will feel they have been forced from a country –the UK – they felt they wanted to stay with. A narrow ‘No’ victory, meanwhile, will leave a substantial minority who feel that their best interests have been ignored. Neither is a pleasing prospect for a future Scottish – or UK, in the case of a No win – government. In the case of a narrow Yes win, at least the direction of travel will be clear: as noted above, independence is likely to be a one-way street – once out, there is little prospect of return. But a narrow No win leaves the outcome unresolved. ‘Yes’ campaigners are likely to feel that one more heave might just do it, and a future referendum on independence would be likely. Quebec points the way here: independence referendums have become a recurrent feature of politics there, with votes in 1980s and 1995 both resulting in votes against independence from Canada (by the narrowest of margins in 1995), and the prospect of a third referendum was floated most recently during the 2014 provincial elections. While a Yes win will settle the issue for better or worse, a No victory will not.
John Smith MP, Labour leader from 1992 till his sudden death in 1994, a major figure in Scottish politics, and a leading advocate of a Scottish parliament within the UK, once famously described devolution as ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’. The 1997 referendum seemed to vindicate that view when the pro-devolution campaign won by a 2 to 1 margin. But that was then. This is now. A near 50:50 split in the referendum result now looks possible, a much more finely balanced outcome than the 1997 vote. Whatever the result in two weeks’ time, the will of the Scottish people no longer looks so settled.
Prof Charles Pattie has also had a letter featured in the Guardian – 9th September 2014