Be Careful What You Wish For

Be Careful What You Wish For

David McCrone (University of Edinburgh)


Big things do not happen for small reasons.” (Janan Ganesh, Financial Times, 8th Sept 2014)

How might social scientists explain the outcome of the Scottish referendum on Independence on 18th September 2014? Why was there even one at all? Surely there are many English regions, such as Yorkshire, which are roughly the same size, and have a strong sense of ‘regional’ identity? Why should the Scots be any different?

You cannot understand the referendum and its outcome without appreciating that the back-story is crucial. The simplest thing to say is that Scotland is a nation, and Yorkshire is not. Scotland is a nation because, not only was it an independent state for most of its history (roughly, 700 years until a treaty of union with England in 1707), but after union it had different civil institutions: separate systems of law, education, religion, as well as control over the ‘low state’ (civil society) rather than ‘high state’ (foreign affairs, defence etc).

So Scots came to think of themselves as ‘Scottish’ by nationality, and ‘British’ by citizenship. (Yorkshire folk say they are ‘English’, as the British Social Attitudes surveys show). The United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland, and after 1921, Northern Ireland only) was that curious thing: a multi-national state (England, Scotland, Wales and [Northern] Ireland, but until devolution in 1999, a unitary state with a single parliament at Westminster.

The whole was held together after 1707 by the sinews of warfare (with France, Spain, Germany), religion (varieties of Protestantism facing the Catholic Other), and finally, in the mid-20th century, welfare. All three have atrophied; no mass war for 70 years; religion is now a personal not a political matter (except in Northern Ireland); and the undoing of the welfare state has occurred since 1979 under successive Conservative and Labour governments. As the historian Linda Colley put it, being British was ‘forged’, and, in the context of empire, the people of these islands were happy enough to be British.

They still are, but how ‘British’ dovetails with being Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish is unclear. The fact that 85 per cent of the UK population is English, and we all get a UK government which England elects means that ‘non-England’ is presented with a challenge when they do not vote the same way. Since 1945 Scotland has had a government it did not elect for 48 per cent of the time; England, for only 10 per cent of the time (Labour governments with weak English mandates). Thus, the term ‘democratic deficit’ entered the political lexicon in Scotland. The discovery of North Sea Oil in the 1960s and 70s was a stimulus to political divergence, with the rise of the Scottish National Party as a major force. Oil also helped Scots to imagine an alternative economic and political future outside the UK.

The electoral decline of the Conservatives in Scotland (from around half of the vote in 1955, to 17 per cent in 1997) but not in England forced the political pace, and Labour, which felt the challenge from the SNP most keenly, introduced proposals for ‘devolution’. The referendum on a ‘Scottish Assembly’ in 1979 produced a majority in Scotland of 52% to 48%. It was not enough to meet the 40% rule inserted by opponents of ‘home rule’ that such a proportion of the electoral register were required to vote ‘yes’. When the Conservative party governed Westminster from 1979 to 1997, they steadfastly opposed devolution for Scotland and Wales. Only the election of the Blair Labour government in 1997 established devolved institutions.

Elected under proportional representation, the Scottish parliament had control over domestic issues such as health, education, law and order. From the outset supporters of all the main political parties in Scotland, apart from Conservatives, wanted a more powerful parliament. In 2007, after two periods of Labour/Liberal Democrat government in Scotland, the SNP was elected as a minority, and then as a majority, government in 2011. Their manifesto contained a proposal to have a referendum on Independence. ‘Constitutional matters’ such as this were reserved to Westminster, so the SNP leader and First Minister, Alex Salmond, had to negotiate over the terms and procedure of a referendum.

There is little doubt that Salmond wanted a third option on the ballot paper, ‘devolution-max’, all powers, including taxation and welfare but not defence and foreign affairs, controlled by the Scottish parliament. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition baulked at this idea, seeing it as another wedge driven into the fabric of the British Union state. In early 2014, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey put support for Independence on 40 per cent, Devo-Max on 30 per cent, the Status Quo on 22 per cent, and no parliament, 6 per cent. However, well over half of Scots gave Devo-Max as their second choice. In the event of a multi-option referendum, there would be a consensus on this enhanced option, supported as second choice by three-quarters of pro-Independence, and Status Quo supporters.

So why no multi-option referendum? It would have given the SNP an important second prize, and a basis for going ultimately the extra step to full independence in due course. Instead, there was a binary choice: yes or no to the question: ‘Should Scotland be an Independent Country?’ This meant that supporters of Devo-Max were split: did they go for Independence because they wanted a parliament with considerably more powers? Or did they simply opt for the domestic status quo? Surveys showed that around 30 per cent of them would support Independence. Labour voters in particular wanted a more powerful parliament. And so in the few weeks before the referendum in September 2014, the polls narrowed, one even showing a majority for Independence, though most placed yes upwards of 45 per cent.

The rest became history. The British state threw everything it had at the campaign, with Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats forming a Unionist alliance called Better Together. There were scares about the currency, whether businesses, notably the banks, would leave Scotland, supermarket prices would rise, the BBC licence fee would double, if indeed Scots were able to watch the BBC at all. Labelled ‘Project Fear’ by its opponents, the No campaign made a late ‘vow’ (their word) to devolve unspecified powers to the Scottish parliament. This, and people’s worries about Independence in a cold political and economic climate, did the trick. In the event, 45 per cent voted Yes, and 55 per cent No.

Counted on the basis of local authorities, Dundee (57%), West Dunbartonshire (54%), Glasgow (53%), and North Lanarkshire (51%) had a majority for Yes, and the rest voted No by majorities ranging from +.01% (Inverclyde) to +33% (Borders). The turnout was 84.6 per cent, surpassing even that in the UK election in 1950.

So how are we to explain those results? The post-referendum studies are not yet to hand, but we have the advantage of an opinion poll carried out on 18th/19th September, with a sample size of over 2000 people. Funded by the Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft, it gives some basis for early analysis. Despite claims throughout the campaign that men were far more likely to vote Yes than women, the poll (which predicted the result accurately) suggested that there was no significant gender gap (47% of men and 44% of women voting Yes). Age mattered, but not in a straightforward way. Only 27 per cent of over 65s voted Yes, compared with 59 per cent of the 25-34 age group, and 51% of 16-24 year olds. The major split is between 55-64 year olds 43 per cent voting Yes, compared with just over one-quarter of those over 65.

Social class has only a modest effect, with C1 and C2 workers (clerical and skilled manual) most likely to vote Yes (respectively, 49% and 52%), and 40 per cent of the AB (professional and managerial) group. Contrary to what the Glasgow and Dundee effects might suggest, those in semi- and unskilled jobs or unemployed voted 45 per cent and 55 per cent No, mirroring the Scottish population as a whole. Around one-third of Labour voters voted Yes, despite the party line. One of the curiosities is that SNP supporters were less likely to follow their party than Conservatives: 20 per cent of those who had voted SNP in the Holyrood election of 2011 actually voted No; whereas virtually all Conservatives did so.

So where does this leave Scotland and the rest of the UK? Forty five per cent of Scots wish to leave the UK, and presumably some of those voting No did so on the basis of late, unspecified, promises to devolve more powers to the Scottish parliament. A number of campaigns have begun post-referendum: to reserve ‘English’ votes on ‘English’ laws at Westminster (easier said than done), on devolving more powers to English cities and regions, notably in the North. And lying behind all of that is the threat (or promise) of another referendum on continuing UK membership of the European Union, if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015.

We might wonder how all this constitutional talk emerged, and attribute it to the politics of Scotland. What was meant to see off the demand for Scottish independence has turned into a broader debate about how the British wish to be governed. As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for.


David McCrone is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Edinburgh. He coordinated the research programme funded by The Leverhulme Trust on Constitutional Change and National Identity (1999-2005), and on National Identity, Citizenship and Social Inclusion (2006-2012).