One year ago, Scottish voters were called to decide whether the nation should become an independent country or stay in the UK – essentially the question on the ballot paper was about Scotland’s future constitutional status. The referendum debate itself though, like most current debates about the future of Scotland and the UK, was and is closely connected to a range of policy issues.
In the run-up to last year’s vote, the discussion that took place in the ‘old’ media was primarily a debate around policy. Would voting for independence or for staying in the Union bring about financial prosperity for Scots? Which option would result in better healthcare and education standards? Which option would improve welfare provision, guarantee Scotland’s membership of the EU, or remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil? The mainstream news media saw the referendum as a decision about policy, mainly because that was how the two official campaigns decided to frame it.
For Yes Scotland and Better Together, connecting the referendum result to policy outcomes made sense, because it made the independence debate less abstract than a discussion exclusively about constitutional status, and hence more likely to engage voters’ interest. At the same time linking the result to issues people felt strongly about, allowed the two campaigns to plan their messages strategically to stimulate emotions of hope and fear. Traditional news media were particularly reliant on the two campaigns’ statements and activities, and reproduced much of this framing, especially as the referendum day approached.
Anyone reading this who lived in Scotland during the two-year campaign may be wondering what the referendum could have been about if it was not about policy. The idea that people were ultimately deciding on issues like the economy, public services, welfare, defence or employment was rather common sense. It was even reflected in the questions used by pollsters during the campaign, asking respondents to rate the influence of various issues in their voting decision.
Despite the significant role of the media in helping people understand political events, it is likely that this prominence of policy in defining the Scottish constitutional issue has deeper roots than the referendum campaign. Some academics, for instance, have argued that the Scottish constitutional issue has never really been about the constitution, but about Scotland feeling unequally treated in policy terms and seeking constitutional change as a way towards determining its own approach to policy problems.
Policy has remained in the foreground of discussions about Scotland’s relationship to the union throughout the last year. On the anniversary of the referendum, talk of a possible second vote on independence seems equally to hang upon Westminster decisions on welfare reforms and defence, rather than strictly on matters of identity and self-determination. Whatever happens in the future, it is certain that such issues will remain a key battlefield not only between political parties in election campaigns, but also between supporters of independence and the Union in their efforts to achieve their preferred constitutional outcome.
Ian Murray, Scotland’s only remaining Labour MP, recently said that Scotland “can’t afford more years of division and arguments about the constitution” and focus should instead be on day-to-day issues like public services. What this is missing, though, is that arguments about the constitution are intertwined with arguments about public policy and disentangling them would require reframing what independence is actually about.
Marina Dekavalla is PI of the 'Television framing of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum' research project, funded by the ESRC Future Research Leaders scheme. http://scottishreferendumcoverage.org.uk