Scotland has voted: A “No” with massive consequences

20140918_141625Scotland 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.

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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.

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