A referendum review
Evan 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.