Referendum reflections

No and yes posters

There have been two weeks to reflect on the Scottish independence referendum, and it has been a tough result for many to stomach. In a sense that was to be expected.

For lifelong independence campaigners, it truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity to achieve their dream. It is easy to understand why the no vote was painful for them. No matter what the result, a lot of people were going to be severely disappointed.

But there is something deeper going on behind the reaction of some yes supporters. The reaction has not been of mere disappointment. It has not even been one of denial.

Some people have simply been unable to accept the result.


On the one hand, you have the bonkers statements from the likes of Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars implying that Scotland should unilaterally declare independence without a referendum.

Signs of this anti-democratic poison at the very heart of the Yes Scotland operation were evident prior to the vote. This makes me all the more relieved about the no vote.

Conspiracy theories

Another angle being pursued is that the referendum result was in some way invalid. This is at least a less overtly authoritarian angle than UDI. But it still hints at the anti-democratic tendencies of the independence movement.

At the most extreme end of this spectrum, there have been the mad conspiracy theories from indyref truthers who use grainy YouTube footage in an attempt to show that the vote was rigged. Normally the claims just expose an ignorance about the democratic process and how plebiscites work.

Again, the signs that claims like this would emerge were evident before the vote. A YouGov poll showed that over a quarter of all Scots believed that MI5 were conspiring with the UK government to prevent a yes vote, and that 19 per cent believed that the referendum would be rigged.

We are almost into David Icke territory with this stuff.

Conspiracy theorists have a remarkable faith in humans’ ability to organise the whole of society. They forget that the government couldn’t even fly the Saltire above 10 Downing Street without causing a shambles. Quite how they can think MI5 can fill in over 2m no votes under the watchful gaze of armies of observers is beyond my comprehension.

Blaming demographic groups

Another branch of the independence movement accuses over-65s of “selling out”.

There has been a lot of commentary surrounding a Lord Ashcroft poll suggesting that the only age group that voted no was the over-65s (a generation many of whom remember what unity can achieve in the face of a nationalist movement).

However, the subsamples for this are tiny. Only 14 16–17-year-olds responded in this poll.

Another poll conducted by YouGov prior to the vote — with a somewhat larger sample — told a different story. Only 25–39-year-olds decisively said they would vote yes. This is in an overall poll that overstated the yes vote by over 7 per cent.

There is no way of knowing how different demographic groups truly voted in the referendum. So analysis of these polls is largely an academic exercise.

But the point many are missing is that what different groups think is entirely irrelevant to the result of a plebiscite.

Democracies are not made up of chunks of the population that you can slice and dice to suit your own argument. What counts is the verdict of the people as a whole.

Mental gerrymandering


Pinpointing particular demographic groups for having a particular viewpoint is a disturbing but logical extension of a familiar and spurious argument put forward by both Labour and the SNP in the past few decades. Both parties tell voters that Scotland gets governments that it does not vote for.

Labour used the line for short-term gain in the 1980s. They used it to say to poor voters, “you are poor is because of those nasty Tories that nobody here voted for. So vote Labour.”

Naturally, the SNP adopted this line. It fits with their long-term aim of exaggerating and exacerbating divisions between Scotland and the rest of the UK, to hoodwink voters into believing that independence would solve all their problems.

The UK hasn’t voted for a Conservative government for 22 years. But the argument lives on because both Labour and the SNP stoked it up for their own ends.

Democracy is all about reconciling differences among a population. It is mendacious to start splitting up the population in an exercise of mental gerrymandering. It undermines the whole concept of democracy.

Both Labour and the SNP should be ashamed of themselves for their role in developing this culture. It exacerbates divisions in a system that is supposed to be about reconciling them.

It is especially despicable when a Conservative government has not won a majority in an election since 1992. In the intervening period Labour have been the UK government for 13 years, and part of the Scottish Government for eight. The SNP have been in government for seven years. In all that time, neither party has found the solution to the deprivation it continues to blame the Conservatives for.

Realities for the yes movement to reflect on

The list of “explanations” why the yes campaign failed to win the referendum grows ever longer.

I have been particularly bemused by the scorn that has been poured on Yes Scotland’s chief executive Blair Jenkins. This is a view that has only emerged in post-referendum autopsies. It is particularly staggering given that prior to the vote it was widely agreed that the Yes Scotland campaign was easily outperforming Better Together (which was at times maddeningly woeful).

Amid the conspiracy theories and the finger-pointing, it is conspicuous that many yes supporters are unable to grasp the concept that maybe — just maybe — they failed to win the referendum because a majority of people think that separation is a bad idea.

I was struck by Flying Rodent’s description:

…it was that high turnout that swung it decisively for the No campaign.

That’s a particular irony, given the Yessers’ focus on the wonders of democraticity and so on, since it was a massive democratic stampede against independence that did them in.

It is highly notable that the only two areas that dipped below 80% turnout were also the areas with the strongest yes support. Strong no areas had higher turnouts. Were no voters the silent majority? You bet.

The thing is that a lot of yes supporters genuinely seemed to believe that the vast majority were with them. This partly explains the shock and the scrabble to find explanations.

But if they reflect properly, there may be a lesson here for them. You don’t win a campaign by holding parties and concerts and talking to yourselves about how great your yessy-wessy hopey-dopey doo-dah is.

No voters were indeed intimidated to speak

Moreover, there is ample evidence that no voters did indeed feel intimidated by the nature of the yes campaign. All the opinion polls converged on a consensus that no would get around 52% of the vote. In the end, this was an understatement beyond the normal margin of error.

I suspected all along that there was a “spiral of silence” whereby no voters felt intimidated to speak out. Even so, I was surprised that nine different friends, colleagues and acquaintances messaged me privately to thank me for writing in favour of a no vote, while saying they were unable or unwilling to publicly comment.

The role of Alex Salmond

A National Conversation launch

I have noted before my firm belief that the abrasive nature of the yes campaign started at the very top, with Alex Salmond.

Mr Salmond has always been a double-edged sword for the SNP and the wider independence movement. There is no doubt that he is a talented political operator.

The SNP has seen remarkable growth in the 24 years since he was first at the helm, with a notable dip in electoral performance during the four years he was away.

But he is a polarising figure, as reviled as he is loved.

As the referendum campaign wore on, I came to believe more and more that the yes side would have been better served had Nicola Sturgeon been leading it.

Alex Salmond’s appeal can only go so far. To this day, middle-aged men remain the independence movement’s strongest demographic.

But Nicola Sturgeon can appeal to a more diverse range of voters. She would possibly appeal more to many women. She could probably reach out to poorer voters more effectively, and would be effective at winning over Labour voters.

It’s the economy, stupid

But in the end, the personalities, demographic factors and conspiracy theories are all a sideshow.

Prior to the referendum I wrote the following:

This vote is all about how much you are willing to take this risk in return for the uncertain chance that things might be better.

I think this is what explains why the yes vote was strongest in more deprived areas. I don’t think there is any particular reason for Labour to worry about this, as many are suggesting. A strong yes vote is not necessarily an indicator of strong SNP support.

Instead, it is a function of the risk factor. A big risk is easier to take if you already feel like you have little to lose.

The yes campaign focussed heavily in these areas in the run-up to the vote, probably precisely because they were an easier constituency to persuade. As such, I am not sure that many of these people are necessarily hardened independence supporters. They were just willing to take a punt on independence, and why not?

I do think that Labour are in trouble, but not because of an SNP surge in urban areas. It is instead for the same reasons Labour may struggle across the UK — poor leadership and a wider crisis of purpose.

For this reason the SNP is bound to remain strong as a political party. But any chat about another referendum within the next generation should be put to bed.

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2 responses to “Referendum reflections”

  1. Nick Shovlin avatar
    Nick Shovlin

    Rigging a vote is really not sci fiction as Ted Heath in the EU referendum simply said UK voted yes when they actually voted NO. To believe that the most powerful people in Britain backed by banks , and other self interest groups would not do this is a bit naive. The main parties now have a mandate from the Scottish people which far exceeds the original act of union carried out by a select few Lords etc and that gives them more power over Scotland than existed prior to the vote. They are already exercising that power to defeat UKIP by introducing policies that are not in the interest of Scotland , we need unfettered immigration here England does not want it . We want to be in the EU England clearly does not as they feel they are not better together ? More to be spent on Trident which Scotland wants rid off. To help the poor the unemployed will now have to wait 2 weeks before they are entitled to anything and as it is only two weeks for the most vulnerable what does it matter ? Well basically after a few months unemployed they will receive their first sanction where they get nothing for 4 weeks and then sign on again and now wait 2 weeks more as they are new claimants, and on it goes . Saves the Gov money is the war cry but it will not as office staff ,intellectuals will be paid vast sums to enforce ,draft the legislation etc training programmes for the job center staff etc etc It is another punishment exercise to make the British people have scape goats for what was the stupidity of the Banks who cling on to their bonuses paid for by us all. Scotland had its chance and now the Gov will make sure they never will have that chance again.

  2. […] These seeds were sown in the 1980s, when for tactical reasons Labour began to focus on blaming the Conservatives for all of Scotland’s problems. This line of attack was easily adopted by the SNP, who for ideological reasons have evolved it into a running narrative about how Westminster as a whole does Scotland down. […]

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