Who will decide the referendum outcome?

Dr. Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

Nicola McEwen reflects on reports that voters of non-Scottish origins will play a decisive role in the referendum vote at The Conversation, noting that the emphasis on country of origin in analysing voting intention is misplaced.

The latest ICM poll made delightful reading for the yes campaign the other day. It showed a split of 52/48 against independence (42/39 once we factor the “don’t knows” back in), suggesting that the yes campaign needed only a two percentage point swing to reach a majority. The once buoyant Better Together campaigners look decidedly more worried these days.

There is still a long way to go before the poll in September, but recent polls increasingly suggest that the result may be close. This would make it easy to conclude that should a particular group of people be more inclined to vote yes or no, it would have a decisive impact on the result.

The point is, we can draw many correlations to illustrate the constitutional preferences of different categories of voters. But to do so would shed little light on understanding why people will vote yes or no.

Last weekend Scotland on Sunday suggested in response to the ICM poll that the decisive group in question could be “the 460,000 people who live in Scotland but were born in England” (or at least those 16 and over who are eligible to vote).

The ICM poll suggested that just 28% of them say they will vote yes compared to 58% who intend to vote no. They contrasted this with those born in Scotland who appear to marginally favour independence by 42% to 40%.

But why focus on country of origin? This seems an entirely arbitrary and potentially provocative demographic feature to pinpoint – one which is of little relevance in a campaign in which issues of ethnicity and even national identity are largely absent.

Demographic pick and mix

We can point to any number of demographic characteristics to suggest that a particular group could swing the result either way, and in numbers which would carry much more weight than the 9% of Scots born in England.

What about the 51% of Scots who are women? The same poll indicated that just 35% of women would vote yes compared to 44% of men. Once you exclude the don’t knows, a majority of men in this poll expressed support for independence, but the female vote would produce a no outcome.

Or should we single out the 1.5 million Scots who are older than 65? They are markedly more opposed to independence than any other age group. Or perhaps the decisive group will be the ABC1 voters, only 35% of whom in the ICM poll said they’d vote yes, compared to the 42% of the working and lower-middle class (53% once we exclude the don’t knows) voters.

Or the power to determine the outcome might be seen to lie in the hands of those in the north east or the south of Scotland, who are notably less enthusiastic in their support of independence than those from the other regions sampled.

The point is, we can draw many correlations to illustrate the constitutional preferences of different categories of voters. But to do so would shed little light on understanding why people will vote yes or no.

Parizeau’s faux pas

When in 1995 the voters of Quebec came within a whisker of voting for independence, then premier Jacques Parizeau infamously placed the blame for the defeat on “l’argent puis des votes ethniques” – money and the ethnic vote. That comment, more than the result itself, led to his immediate resignation from a party that had at that time worked hard to promote itself as an inclusive civic nationalist party.

The Scottish National Party has done even more to champion the cause of civic nationalism. With groups such as New Scots for Independence and Scots Asians for Yes, it has long sought to present Scotland as a multi-cultural nation and independence as a project for everyone resident in Scotland, irrespective of where they were born and bred.

The Independence White Paper proposes an inclusive citizenship policy, emphasising that “a commitment to a multi-cultural Scotland will be a cornerstone of the nation on independence”. And it is a credit to both sides in this campaign that neither has sought to play an ethnic card.

Neither has sought to define categories or degrees of Scottishness. We can be confident that this inclusive approach will be carried forward into the period after the referendum, whatever the result. Rocks would melt in the sun before the Scottish first minister expressed a reaction similar to that of the former Quebec premier.

The ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme will be conducting an academic survey during and after the referendum to try to understand why people voted yes or no, and the identities, attitudes and events that helped to shape their voting behaviour.

Previous referendum and election surveys would suggest that demographic characteristics – age, region, gender or country of origin – are unlikely to represent the decisive factor.

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1 Response to Who will decide the referendum outcome?


    The referendum legislation contains “no provisions” for Scottish constituencies (Carmichael). 2010 constituency mandates remain in force.

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