Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 50 - January 2015

The Scottish Referendum losing a battle, winning a campaign

In update 47 (June 2014) I described how, even three months before the Scottish independence referendum of 18 September 2014, the campaign itself was changing the political face of Scotland and the constitutional face of the United Kingdom. But neither I nor any other observer anticipated the full scale of change that would flow from the referendum.

The result itself now seems almost the least important outcome. Nevertheless, three aspects of the final figures are worth recalling because they help explain what happened next – and in particular explain why the referendum failed in its main objective, which was to settle the independence question for good and all.

First, this was the most successful democratic plebiscite of any kind ever held in Scotland. Figure 1 (at end) compares turnout in every election and referendum in the democratic era; it shows just how different was September 2014. What lies behind this is a kind of revolution in political culture in which large numbers of voters, previously indifferent, have been mobilised into political activity.

Second, the most important ‘unionist’ party in Scotland – the Labour Party – suffered a significant reversal. Table 1 (at end) show the two main opinion poll analyses of votes cast. Although, as is inevitable in all polls, the detailed results differ, the pattern is plain, and it explains much that has happened since the referendum. A large minority of Labour supporters – identified by those who had voted for the party in the last Scottish Parliament elections – ‘deserted’ the unionist cause to vote for independence. Analyses of the geography of the result further confirm this. In the very heartland of Labour – Glasgow – the result in every Westminster Parliamentary constituency showed a majority in favour of independence, and the city overall voted 53.5% yes and 46.5% no – almost an exact reversal of the result for the whole of the country. The age profile of preferences revealed in Table 1 is even more startling. The age gradient is clear: the younger you are in Scotland, the more you are likely to support independence. That is critical because of what electoral behaviour geeks usually call the ‘cohort’ effect: the tendency of different generations of voters to have different sets of preferences. Put brutally, supporters of the union are disproportionally dying, while supporters of independence are being disproportionally born. You do not need to be a statistical wizard to forecast the long term consequence.

These two sets of outcomes are very good news for supporters of independence and for the SNP. Just how good is shown by the most recent evidence: membership of the SNP has reportedly trebled since September, mostly with young recruits; and the polls of voting intentions since September suggest that in May 2015 the Labour Party will suffer catastrophic losses to the SNP in the Westminster Parliamentary elections. If the polls are accurate Ed Miliband’s hopes of forming a majority Labour Government are doomed. But a third feature of the results is much less encouraging: the nationalists did indeed win the campaign, but they lost the key battle. The ‘no’ to independence supporters in the end won a clear majority: 55.3% voted no, and 44.7% voted ‘yes’. This outcome also throws light on the future – and on the past. As almost everyone who followed the campaign remarked, the ‘no’ camp’s arguments were almost totally negative. That is, they relied on arousing fear of the unknown: fear of what would happen to the currency in an independent Scotland; fear for the future of Scottish relations with the European Union; fear for the stability of an economy heavily reliant on the uncertain proceeds of North Sea oil. The campaign was negative in part because of the past. We can see this if we conduct a simple mental experiment. Imagine that the referendum had been taking place in 1914, not 2014. A positive case for the union could have been made then by the greatest of the Unionist parties, the Conservatives, based on Disraeli’s famous three pillars of empire, altar and throne. The empire has disappeared, and with it the industrial might that made Glasgow a great imperial city. Altar – the connection with British Protestantism – has disappeared in what is now one of the most secularised countries of Europe. The throne still stands as a symbol of union, and there were several hints in the campaign that the Queen favoured a ‘no’ vote. But these had to be hints only because any attempt by the Crown to take an openly partisan position would undoubtedly have been counter productive. Though a pro Union campaign of a traditional kind is now impossible, there was the possibility for a modern pro Union campaign, one indeed voiced late in the day by Gordon Brown. This stressed the importance of the Union in making and developing the welfare state, and also stressed the importance of European identity over traditional notions of Scottishness. But making this positive case was impossible for the Westminster pro union parties. Neither Conservatives nor Labour in Westminster were convincing defenders of the welfare state settlement, since both are committed to a medium future of cuts. And the Conservatives could say almost nothing about Europe since they are divided on the very issue of UK membership and are fearful of the threat of UKIP.

This left the option of negative arguments based on fear of an uncertain future. And, as the outcome suggests, these arguments convinced a clear majority of Scots. Moreover developments since September – notably the collapse in oil prices and therefore in the value of North Sea reserves – reinforce the power of the ‘fear’ argument. This explains why, for the moment at least, all the parties have converged on what is conventionally called ‘devo max’: a great enhancement of powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. But what devo max means is not agreed. After weeks of behind the scenes negotiations the Scottish ‘fixer’ Lord Smith of Kelvin produced a report outlining these enhanced powers in late November. His proposals devolve power over income tax rates and bands, a share of value added tax raised in Scotland, and the right to create new (welfare) benefits in Scotland. The ‘unionist’ parties, notably Conservatives and Labour, are signed up to these. But the Nationalists obviously view them as merely the starting point in negotiations. Their fate will depend on what happens in May 2015. If the present predicted rout of Labour by the Nationalists occurs, the SNP may well hold the balance of power in the Westminster parliament. At the moment it looks as if it will use this power, not to demand a fresh referendum, but to extract more radical devolution – of an order that would turn the United Kingdom into a truly federal state.
The after effects of the Scottish earthquake are also now spreading far beyond Scotland. Both Unionists and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland are watching with interest to see how the devo max negotiations develop. Political leaders in Wales – both Labour and Plaid Cymru – are positioning themselves for a push for enhanced powers. The most intriguing future lies in England. Already devo max has led to demands for a relaxation of the highly centralised system of control over local government in England. And the conundrum of what has traditionally been called the West Lothian question has reappeared: what is to be done about the prospect of Scottish MPs in Westminster being able to vote on measures that affect England, when English MPs are unable to do likewise for devolved issues in Scotland.

Some of this may be clearer when I write my next update in June 2015.

Note on sources. The report of the Smith Commission, together with background papers, can be accessed at: https://www.smith-commission.scot/ The figure and table at the end of this update are in an excellent analysis of the referendum results published by the House of Commons Library and reproduced here under the Open Government Licence v3.0. They are available at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/briefing-papers/RP14-50/scottish-independence-referendum-2014
Graphic on Why the referendum was such an unprecedented democratic event
Figure 1: Why the referendum was such an unprecedented democratic event

Table on How Scotland voted, post referendum polls
Table 1: How Scotland voted, post referendum polls