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Scotland’s No

Par Alistair Cole : Professor of European Politics - Cardiff University
Publié par Clifford Armion le 29/09/2014

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Shortly before the Scottish referendum on independence, I visited the impressive city of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. Though the Scottish referendum eventually produced a No of over 55%, the once second largest city in the Empire was one of only four districts to vote Yes (just over 53%). I had correctly judged the atmosphere in this city, but elsewhere the story was rather different. In 28 of the remaining 32 districts, the No vote carried the day, including in SNP stronghold areas such as Angus and Perthshire...


Shortly before the Scottish referendum on independence, I visited the impressive city of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. Though the Scottish referendum eventually produced a No of over 55%, the once second largest city in the Empire was one of only four districts to vote Yes (just over 53%). I had correctly judged the atmosphere in this city, but elsewhere the story was rather different. In 28 of the remaining 32 districts, the No vote carried the day, including in SNP stronghold areas such as Angus and Perthshire.

1. The Campaign

The long campaign, which started with the historic agreement to hold a referendum between UK premier Cameron and Scottish First Minister Salmond in October 2012 (the Edinburgh Agreement), was peppered with accusations of intimidation and dirty tricks on both sides, but the police made only a handful of arrests and declared the referendum to have been an orderly affair. The Electoral Commission signalled no serious irregularities. As the campaign progressed, however, the political temperature reached boiling point. The highlight of the campaign was provided by the last ten frantic days, as the three main UK party leaders each visited Scotland to argue the case that we are ‘better off together’, and made a public commitment to enhance budgetary, fiscal and legislative powers for the Scottish parliament. Days before the referendum, the UK premier David Cameron gave an emotional speech which contrasted with the previous disinclination of the Conservative Prime Minister to campaign openly. But, as the campaign progressed, it became clear that  the referendum would be won or lost by the behaviour of Labour electors; between one-quarter and one-third were wavering between No, abstention and Yes in the final days of the campaign. Former premier Gordon Brown was largely credited with having saved the day for the United Kingdom with a series of powerful and uncharacteristically emotional performances. On the side of the Yes, Alex Salmond was widely recognized as having provided vision and enthusiasm, while refusing to be drawn on the details. Alistair Darling, the Better Off together spokesperson, was deemed in the polls to be too negative – but the strategy ultimately worked. Salmond’s resignation in the aftermath of the referendum defeat (and his replacement by Nicola Sturgeon), while not totally unexpected, came as a shock to many supporters of independence.

The trend from around early 2014 was for a tightening of the polls; back in March, YOU GOV had the No vote at 53%, the Yes vote at only 35% and 12% don’t knows; by September 6th 2014, the YOU GOV survey gave the YES camp a narrow lead (51% against 49% for the No). The other institutes told a rather similar story of a tightening NO lead, though one other rogue survey (ICM, 12th September 2014) placed the YES camp in front (57/43). The YOUGOV survey of September 6th sparked panic in Downing Street and directly produced the concessions agreed between party leaders to keep Scotland in the Union. The final result – 55.4% (2,001,926) for the NO, 44.6% (1,617,989) for the YES – was substantially less close than most predicted (the final poll of polls had the No on 52%).  There was a degree of soul-searching amongst pollsters in the aftermath of the referendum; the kindest interpretation is that the comfortable result testified to the difficulty of benchmarking predicted behaviour in a referendum in relation to more routine indicators such as support for a particular party in the 2011 Scottish parliament election.

2. The Results

Table 1
The Scottish referendum on independence: Should Scotland Be an Independent Country? 






 3619915 (84.5%)

In a campaign saturated by polls, one that would have been useful to students of politics would have been an exit poll. No such exit poll took place, making post-referendum analysis more dependent on once-removed sources. Table 1 presents the main findings of one poll: the Observer Opinium survey, published on 13th September on the basis of fieldwork carried out from 9-11th September. This survey was conducted just before the referendum and came closer than most to predicting the eventual result. While the normal precautions must be observed (the figures are those of one survey, not the referendum result itself), the survey provides a wealth of information on the likely choice according to social group and partisan identification.

Table 2
Observer-Opinium Survey, 11-13th September 2014 (n. 1055)

















































2011 SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT VOTE ((There are notorious difficulties with this measure, as electors are prone to ‘remember’ their vote in a way that exaggerates the score of the winning side, or ensures consistency. These figures are to be treated with the upmost caution, but they are indicative of broad trends))








Scottish Labour




Scottish Conservatives




Scottish Liberal Democrats




The key battlegrounds during the campaign had been those of generation, gender and partisan identity. The generational effect was real; all surveys suggested that the over 60s were around two-thirds in favour of remaining within the United Kingdom, while the 18-24 cohort was most likely to favour independence. The very youngest voters appeared unstable in successive surveys, and this continued after the result had been announced. One survey suggested that 71% of 16 and 17 year olds had favoured independence, but it emerged that this was based on only 14 individuals and seemed out of kilter with most other surveys (the same survey gave the figures of 51% yes for the whole 16-24 age cohort). The gender effect was also a real one. Women favoured remaining in the UK by a 57/43 margin in the Observer Opinium survey, while men were very evenly divided (52/48 for YES). The class effect was also marked; a strong mobilisation by the ABC1s (professional, business and skilled working classes), offsetting a majority for Yes in the C2DE category (semi-skilled and unskilled workers and the unemployed). The lower participation rate of the CD2E category explained some of the advantage, on the day, of the No camp. One of the strongest correlations, demonstrating the economic desperation of the excluded, was between being unemployed and voting for the Yes side.

Rather surprisingly, the No camp succeeded in mobilising substantial support in favour of the Union in SNP-leaning constituencies; the presence of an active SNP member campaigning for independence was no guarantee of a Yes vote. The map of Scotland demonstrated strong support for remaining within the UK in the Scottish borders region (67 for the Union, 33 voting for independence) and Dumfries and Galloway (66/34), as well as in Shetland (64/36) and the Orkney islands (67/33), with their own specific identity and interests. Apart from the specific case of Glasgow (53% for separation, 47% for remaining in the Union), and the strong support for independence in Dundee (57/43 for the Yes), the main urban centres came out for the No: Edinburgh (61/39), Aberdeen (60/40). Even the Highlands favoured the No vote (53/47). The crucial battleground lay for the support of Labour voters; the available evidence suggested that a somewhat higher abstention rate than predicted in some eve of poll surveys limited the impact of Labour Yes supporters. The case of Glasgow, where turnout was ‘only’ 75%, suggested that differential mobilisation played an important part in the eventual result. The cases of Glasgow (53/47 for independence) and north Lanarkshire (51/49 for independence) also confirmed, however, that having Labour MSPs or MPs did not, either, control the behaviour of their electors.

For this was an extraordinary campaign. The participation rate of 84.5% bore testament to the importance afforded to the referendum across Scottish society. If the Yes were far more visible in public, the silent majority – just – supported the No camp.

3. The Aftermath

The first reaction was a huge sigh of relief from the main Unionist parties, as well as from most foreign governments that expressed an opinion: the United States, Canada, and Australia... even China all came down on the side of retaining the integrity of the United Kingdom. On the eve of the referendum, the European Commission made clear its own unease with the prospect of the schism of an existing member-state. The one notable exception was that of Putin’s Russia, a strange bedfellow for Salmond. Such relief was matched in equal measure by the disappointment in Catalonia (whose parliament reacted by voting a law in favour of a ‘votation’, scheduled to be held on 9th November), or Quebec, where the Parti Quebequois looked to the result in Scotland to revive its own fortunes.

The second remarkable development was the rapidity with which attention shifted almost overnight from Scotland to England. In order to retain Scotland within the Union, Cameron announced the creation of a Commission chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin to present proposals for tax, spending and welfare by January 2015, with the pledge that they be implemented after next parliamentary election of May 2015. The Smith Commission will contain representatives of the five leading Scottish parties and will also  involve Scottish civic associations and wider public consultations. Scotland will undoubtedly obtain enhanced fiscal powers, as well as the transfer of new competencies in welfare and employment law.

Did Cameron snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, or was he forced into making too many concessions to keep Scotland on board? In his ‘Downing Street declaration’, on the morning of 19th September, Cameron repeated his commitment to Scotland, but reframed the question in terms of allowing Northern Ireland, Wales and England to have their own say on the future of the UK. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland breathed a sigh of relief, as Scottish independence would have produced powerful pressures for the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic. In the case of Wales, First Minister Carwyn Jones had performed a prominent role in the Better Together campaign, publicly repeating that Wales’ place is within the United Kingdom. Logically, Wales will now demand a form of enhanced devolution and seek to match any increased powers for Scotland.

The main battleground ahead will be that of England. The West Lothian question, first formulated by the former devolution sceptic, Labour MP Tam Dalyell, has regularly resurfaced in debates over devolution: according to ‘West Lothian’ Scottish MPs have a say on laws applying only to England, while England MPs have no influence on Scottish laws, though Scotland’s parliament is still overwhelmingly financed by the block grant based on the Barnett formula. The brief consensus in favour of ‘English devolution’ in the aftermath of the Scottish vote lasted a bare few hours. English devolution is an amorphous concept. Does it signify creating an English parliament, alongside Westminster ? Or organising a system of ‘English votes for English laws’, as a response to the West Lothian question? Or, indeed, reverting to a much bolder version of English regional devolution, recreating 8 or more English regions with real powers to spend and raise taxes? And what about the governance of England’s numerous cities, deprived of many of the policy instruments available to counterparts in continental Europe (such as a degree of local fiscal autonomy, the ability to borrow from the bond markets or even, in some cases, to bid for EU monies). And what about the UK’s unwritten constitution? Can it survive the present ‘mess’. Indeed, should it, or, as Labour’s Ed Miliband argues, should there be a Constitutional Convention to refine the powers of the four nations, and eventually draft a written constitution.  

There are partisan advantages in these various positions. The Conservatives will likely garner a majority in England, even if Labour has an overall majority after the May 2015 general election (a big if). English votes for English laws would, in practice, remove Labour’s majority of key issues of domestic policy (health and education notably). The Conservative response to the West Lothian question is most likely to be ‘English votes for English laws’ within the context of the existing Westminster parliament. Labour leader Miliband has already opposed such a scenario, as it would deprive a new Labour government of control over key aspects of domestic policy (challenging the British majoritarian tradition), or force a coalition with the rump of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and, possibly, Ulster Unionists. The Labour version of English devolution is one of powerful elected regions, with future regulatory powers and a degree of local fiscal autonomy and restored powers for England’s large cities. The Liberal Democrats appear rather divided as usual.


Concluding on a personal note, my trip to Glasgow brought home to me the plurality of the United Kingdom. Has Scotland done everybody else a favour?  If the eventual outcome is a new constitutional deal for all of the United Kingdom’s nations, regions and cities, in the context of a written constitution and a new attitude towards the European Union, the response is probably yes. But it might just be wishful thinking.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Alistair Cole, "Scotland’s No", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2014. Consulté le 21/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/irlande-et-ecosse/scotland-s-no