evanEvan Williams takes a look at some of the numbers and sees a referendum which changed minds and created opportunities.


About one third of the electorate in Scotland favour separation under any circumstances. Many older members of the SNP (by which I mean people who joined some time ago and have supported the party over many years) whatever their broad political persuasion see separation as the principle motivation for political action. That’s fair enough – that’s what the SNP is for after all.

A little under 45% of those who voted voted in favour of separation. So the Yes side managed, during the two and half years of the campaign, to persuade about 1 in 6 of the population who were not already committed to separation to vote for it.

(Incidentally I don’t subscribe to the view that we should consider the numbers from the point of view of the total registered electorate, not least because some of the gap between registration and turnout is accounted for by errors in the register, multiple registrations, people moving etc.)

The nationalists knew that the task of winning a majority for separation rested on engendering a sense of discontent with the current state of society. Appeals to the saltire and “freedom” were never going to be enough to get them over the line. What they needed was 1 in 4 of those not committed to separation at any price to come over to their side.

Salmond’s genius, and why he will be remembered as a brilliant politician, was that he managed to keep the committed separatists on side while making an appeal to social justice in which few of them had ever shown the slightest interest. He kept the “fundamentalist” wing of his support in check by persuading them that this was their best chance.

The fundamentalists bought this notion in the sure and certain knowledge that, once achieved, independence could be fashioned in any way they wanted. The monarchy, the currency, membership of NATO, membership of the EU were all taken off the table for the referendum so as to present a safe, focus-grouped vision of independence. There would be many supporters planning to campaign on reversing these positions as soon as the main prize had been secured.

It is little wonder then that the central theme of the campaign had to be about engendering a sense of grievance. If they could get people to blame the ills of society on the UK while allowing supporters to project their own hopes on an independent Scotland, no matter how mutually contradictory, the finish line would be in sight.

The bulk of those new converts to separation were people broadly on the left, and they were persuaded that the UK government doesn’t work for the interests of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. They talked about food banks, benefits, and the bedroom tax as if all that was required was a dividing line at Berwick, and all problems would be solved because the demon Westminster was to blame.

The reality is that that strategy fell a long way short  – persuading only about half of the new converts needed to get a small majority.

However, there is now is a substantial group of people who, while not naturally motivated by separation, are nevertheless convinced that their enemy is the UK (Government and political parties).

I have some sympathy with those who voted yes on that basis. The problems of society are real and need an urgent response.

But I’m relieved that the overwhelming majority agreed with me that separation isn’t a convincing solution. And now the referendum is over and the question settled for a generation, we need to get back to the urgent business of building a better society.

I hope that the Nationalists are up for the challenge and I look forward to seeing what they do with the substantial powers they already have as the government of Scotland. And I look forward to working within the Labour party to help define and deliver the response we need.

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6 thoughts on “A referendum review

  1. This talk of ‘separation’ is subcultural. Those who voted YES did so in the full knowledge that it would lead to greater EU involvement for Scotland, greater involvement with Nordic states, and a beefed up Council of the Isles. Talking about some 19th century chimera of separatism misses what modern Scottish nationalism essentially is – a democracy movement.

    While you are right that the YES movement discussed issues of poverty affecting Scotland, and the NO campaign tried to avoid talking about that stuff, you are missing that every party of power at Westminster wishes to extend this poverty.

    James Purnell (with the aid of one Blair McDougall) brought in benefit sanctions which are the primary cause of foodbank reliance.

    The last Labour government relaxed the Labour market, leading to an explosion of zero hour contracts.

    The last Labour government introduced the work capability assessments that are starving and killing disabled people.

    Rachel Reeves intends for further cuts to welfare, and to reverse none of these things.

    If there is no party to vote for who can win at Westminster who intend to stop these things and end hunger in our communities in what sense is Scotland a democracy?

  2. I’m not convinced you can argue that all those who voted Yes did so for those reasons or with that “knowledge”, especially since some of what you describe as “knowledge” is in fact conjecture, or at best hope.

    Indeed I think the best and only chance of moving forward on the core issues which it seems we all want to focus on is to acknowledge that most Scots who voted No ALSO want to reduce poverty and improve social justice.

    1. Given that the no-vote would represent the position of both the Tories and the Lie-Dems, represetning about 25% of the electorate alone, and by extension roughly 45% of the entire no vote, I don’t think you can acknowledge any such thing.

      Indeed, without being clever, bearing in mind the tories in particular, the odds are that the large majority of social-democrat votes were yeses. Right wingers got it over the line. Put it another way. If for some reason no Tory voter had voted, who’d have won?

      There’s you’re answer.

      1. The YouGov post-poll analysis suggests a far less convenient and simple picture. It suggests more SNP voters voted No than Labour voters voted Yes, for example. It also suggests the Lib Dem Yes vote was considerable. And we mustn’t forget the Wealthy Nation and Business For Scotland campaigns, which even went so far as to cite the Adam Smith Institute to support independence.

        The conclusion I’m inclined to draw is that people mostly voted on the basis of whether they wanted Scotland to be an independent country or not, not whether they were right wing or left wing.

  3. Whilst many No voters probably do “want to reduce poverty and improve social justice”, the sad fact is that they don’t have a party standing for that in Westminster.

    It’s all well and good making nice noises up here about reconnecting with the electorate, but when you have Balls et al in London toeing the same neo-liberal austerity line as the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP then the electorate will, quite rightly, start to look elsewhere.

  4. “While you are right that the YES movement discussed issues of poverty affecting Scotland, and the NO campaign tried to avoid talking about that stuff, you are missing that every party of power at Westminster wishes to extend this poverty.”

    Good grief. Do people really believe that any political party wishes
    to extend poverty? Let alone Labour which lifted 1 million out of poverty when last in power?

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