Referendum reflections

Published: 29 October 2014

Academics from The Future of the UK and Scotland programme offer some preliminary observations on the referendum and its aftermath. This post originally appeared on the ESRC website (From the ESRC magazine Society Now)

The Scottish indpendence referendum campaign produced what one commentator described as a 'festival of democracy'. Discussion and debate over the issues at stake could be heard in cafes, pubs and community halls around the country. A staggering 84.6 per cent turned out to vote on the question of whether Scotland should be an independent country – Scotland’s highest ever electoral turnout. By a margin of 55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent, they voted 'No'.

Academics engaged in the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme had an invaluable opportunity to observe and examine the process as it unfolded, and to participate directly by helping to ensure that political, civic and public debates were informed by academic research. We offer here some preliminary observations on the referendum and its aftermath.

A fair and decisive outcome? – Robert Lineira

The Edinburgh Agreement set out that the referendum should deliver 'a fair test and a decisive expression' of the views of people in Scotland.

The available evidence indicates that the process and the campaign were generally perceived to be fair. In our June survey, 50 per cent of voters agreed with the proposition that both sides of the referendum debate had a fair chance to present their point of view, whereas only 19 per cent disagreed. Although at time of writing we do not yet have post-referendum survey data that would allow us to examine perceptions of fairness from the perspective of winners and losers, the general view suggests that the fairness criteria has been met.

Was the referendum decisive? Although the margin of victory produced a clear No outcome, the meaning of the No vote is far from clear. The pro-Union parties committed to increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote, but did not agree on which powers would be devolved. Consequently, the referendum may have produced a decisive expression on the question of independence, but not on the constitutional status of Scotland within the Union. These are not wholly separate issues. A failure to deliver appropriate new powers could reopen the independence issue. Lord Ashcroft's post-referendum poll suggested that 61 per cent of Yes voters and 38 per cent of No voters believed the referendum settled the question of independence only for the next five to ten years. Only one in four No voters believed it settled the question forever. The referendum may have been fair, but its decisiveness should not be overstated.

Robert Lineira is a post-doctoral fellow in the ESRC Centre on Constitutional Change

Lesson learned: Trust 16-year olds and schools with politics – Jan Eichorn

One of the unique features of the Scottish independence referendum was the extension of the franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds. This gave us the opportunity to collect representative data on the political attitudes of under 18s, bringing out two core conclusions.

First, young people are interested in and engaged with politics. We need to stop assuming that low voting turnout is associated with political apathy. Their political interest levels were equivalent to those of adults and their engagement with a variety of information sources was impressive. However, many did not find that traditional political institutions provided an avenue for the expression of their political interests. These feelings applied in particular to political parties, which is why many young people are involved in other forms of participation.

Second, the referendum experience suggests that lowering the voting age has the potential to harness this energy and engage young people with representative democracy. This goes beyond the referendum-specific effect (as also evidenced by research in Austria following the lowering of the voting age there). Schools have a crucial role to play. Those young people who had discussed the referendum in class had greater political confidence – an effect that talking to parents could not produce. Fears about inappropriate forms of ideologising school students could not be backed up empirically. To increase young people's engagement with politics, enfranchising them at 16 and providing a space for engagement through schools would most likely be highly beneficial. Politicisation in schools should be embraced and the great work of teachers supported through appropriate curriculum space and materials.

Jan Eichorn is Chancellor's Fellow in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and Principal Investigator on the project 'Young persons' attitudes on Scotland's constitutional future'

Setback or progress for the national movement? – Nicola McEwen

Does the rejection of independence in the referendum suggest that Scotland's future is now cemented within the Union? The result was clearly a defeat for the Yes campaign, but for the SNP in particular, the referendum was never only about winning or losing. Viewed historically, securing 45 per cent support for Scotland to be an independent country has to be seen as significant progress for supporters of independence, while the campaign itself generated a mass pro-independence movement which went far beyond the SNP's rank and file. All of this helps to ensure that debates about Scotland's place within the Union, and its degree of political autonomy, will continue.

All three UK parties had pledged to strengthen devolution, and are now committed to doing so through a cross-party process under the auspices of the Smith commission. That process includes the SNP, and involves engagement with civic Scotland. It is unlikely to produce a lasting settlement which can appease those whose motivations are to maximise Scotland’s decision-making autonomy. Meanwhile, the SNP has witnessed a dramatic upsurge in party membership – from 25,642 on referendum day to 75,000 (and rising) within two weeks – far higher than all other Scottish parties put together. In the coming months, the SNP will seek to redefine the terms of the 'devo max' debate, and try to push their competitors further than they have thus far been willing to go. Going forward, we can expect the SNP to revert to the gradualist strategy that has dominated the party's recent history, pursuing a more incremental path towards greater Scottish self-government, with independence remaining the medium- to long-term goal.

Nicola McEwen is Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of the ESRC Centre on Constitutional Change

Scottish devolution: the next steps – Paul Cairney

One of the unfortunate things about the independence referendum campaign was its failure to clarify 'devo max'. For some, 'devo max' refers to the idea of devolving everything except foreign and defence policy – something that can't happen if Scotland seeks meaningful membership of the UK and the UK remains a member state of the EU. Instead, at the very least, the Bank of England would remain in charge of monetary policy and the UK Government would retain control of many fiscal policies.

In the lead-up to the referendum vote, the three UK party leaders offered 'extensive new powers' in a remarkably short space of time, with draft legislation to come before the next general election. From that starting point, several obstacles remain. First, the parties will have to agree on extensive new powers in less than a year, when their previous attempts to produce the more-limited Scotland Act 2012 took several years. Second, the balance of power in Westminster after the 2015 election, which is likely to influence the final settlement, is unclear. Third, the devolution of more powers will require more co-operation between the UK and Scottish Governments, to pursue shared aims or distinctly Scottish solutions under a UK framework. Yet, the experience so far is of two governments working as independently as possible. The potential devolution of economic, welfare, energy, and other powers will not be enough to allow the Scottish public a sense that it can hold the Scottish Government to account for tax and spending decisions. Rather, it will increasingly share responsibilities with the UK. This outcome should prompt us to consider how we can hold such governments to account. If two or three authorities – in Scotland, the UK and EU – share responsibility for many policy choices, how can we blame any one of them at election time for the outcome?

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling and leads research on public policy within the ESRC Centre on Constitutional Change

The English Question – Charlie Jeffery

People in England who went to bed on 18 September 2014 thinking the issue at stake was whether Scotland would vote Yes or No to independence may have been surprised to hear the Prime Minister David Cameron speaking about England at breakfast time on the 19th. In his post-referendum statement, the PM linked the commitment to additional devolution to Scotland that he had promised if Scotland voted No to action on 'English Votes on English Laws' (EVEL). EVEL of course is shorthand for MPs from Scotland not being able to vote on legislation in the House of Commons that focuses on England. Linking Scottish devolution and EVEL was in part about internal party management. Many on the Conservative backbenches think that devolution outside of England – and further devolution for Scotland – leaves people in England without an effective voice in the UK political system. Cameron needed to act on England to shore up his own right flank.

But he also had Labour in his sights in promising action on EVEL. Labour is strong in Scotland. It could emerge from a UK General Election with a UK-wide majority because of its strength in Scotland, but a minority of MPs in England. EVEL could deny a future Labour administration the capacity to deliver policies in England. So Labour doesn’t like the prospect of EVEL. But that could create the impression that it opposes the right of people in England to have their own representative arrangements. That, as the May 2015 UK election approaches, may be a difficult sell in England.

Charlie Jeffery is Professor of Politics and Co-ordinator of the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme