01 Oct

The Referendum on Scottish Independence: #IndyRef and the fallout thereof

Posted By Politybooks

Whilst the long-awaited referendum on independence for Scotland gave rise to a number of trending hashtags on Twitter (most notably #IndyRefand and #ScotDecides), it is likely that the issues emerging in the wake of the decisive ‘No’ vote will prove of most interest in the weeks and months ahead.

In this, the second of our blogs, we look for the key learning points from the referendum itself – whilst also considering some of the ways in which that ballot, far from putting the issue to bed ‘for a generation’, might in fact mark the beginning of a period of unprecedented constitutional upheaval for the UK as a whole.

Registration and turnout

The features of the #IndyRef end-game that garnered most attention in social media – aside from the much-lauded ‘Better Together’ speech by the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown – were the extraordinarily high levels of voter registration and turnout.

@BBCWorld produced a number of beautifully simple graphics to illustrate the point, re-worked below by @PoliticsAtoZ:

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Significantly, the 84.6% headline turnout figure reported at the time was far in excess of anything that might reasonably have been anticipated. With turnout topping 90% in some regions, the referendum offered hope to those who have bemoaned declining levels of political participation in recent years. An info-graphic produced ahead of the vote by the University of Reading’s Alan Renwick (@alanjrenwick) allowed commentators to put the #IndyRef turnout into context, both nationally and globally:

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The demography of the #IndyRef result

The House of Commons Library Blog ‘Second Reading’ ([email protected]) provided excellent initial analysis of #IndyRef voting behaviour (here) – following it up with a further paper on 30 September (here). The polling commissioned by @LordAshcroft was equally illuminating.

A lot of attention naturally focused on how different regions and different socio-economic groups voted in the referendum. It was significant that many of those more northerly and rural regions which had been expected to back independence, in fact delivered a decisive ‘No’. More predictable was the fact that older voters were more likely to vote ‘No’ than the young: although the youngest voters (16–24-year-olds), widely tipped to vote ‘Yes’, ultimately rejected the offer of independence (see below).

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The level of engagement seen amongst 16–17-year-olds, along with encouraging turnout rates amongst younger voters, led many to call for the franchise to be extended to include them in time for the 2015 general election.Such calls are hardly novel. Gordon Brown had voiced support for such a move ahead of the 2010 general election and there are a host of pressure groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to achieving that very goal. Enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds would result in a further blurring of the statutory lines between childhood and adulthood – not least in respect of taxation (spinning the old adage of ‘no taxation without representation’).


‘That Poll’ and what it means for the future

The YouGOV/Sun Poll published on 7 September, under the heading “‘Yes’ blitzkrieg wipes out ‘No’” was a watershed not only in terms of the campaign itself, but also in the future relations between the nations comprising the United Kingdom. It was that poll, which gave the ‘Yes’ camp a lead of 51 to 49%, that concentrated the collective mind of those in ‘No’ camp into what some saw as panic action.The three main UK parties regrouped, their leaders even agreeing to cancel Prime Minister’s Questions in order to journey to Scotland with emotional as well as financial messages. Labour’s Gordon Brown arose like a Phoenix from the ashes of his 2010 humiliation to find his youthful fire. There were even calls for the Queen to become involved. Last-minute offers of significantly more powers for the devolved institutions in Scotland were made generously, including those over welfare and income tax.

Although the shock poll itself might have led to something of a ‘boomerang’ in voting intentions, the offer of what was, in effect, the‘Devolution Max’ previously denied (#DevoMax), or something akin to it, clearly won over some ‘don’t-knows’ as well as mobilising some of those who might otherwise have stayed at home.


#EnglishVotesForEnglishLaws and greater autonomy for the English regions

The devolution programme launched by New Labour in the 1990s posed as many questions as it answered (see pp. 620–4). The transfer of primary legislative power across a broad range of policy areas to the newly established devolved institutions north of the border raised the question of why Westminster MPs representing Scottish constituencies should be allowed to vote on laws that would have no bearing on their own constituents (one facet of Tam Dalyell’s ‘West Lothian Question’, see p. 623). A reduction in the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59 was widely seen as a fudge. The failure to establish and empower English regional government in the wake of a botched referendum in the North East in 2004 only served to underline the apparent inequity, a fact that was rammed home by a series of so-called West Lothian votes – where measures not directly affecting Scottish voters were forced through the Commons only with the support of MPs representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster.

Though the idea of preventing such West Lothian votes by enforcing some system of English votes for English laws has been on the table for some time (see @commonslibrary Standard Note SN06821), the issue is complicated by party politics – with Labour likely to lose out significantly as a result of any effort to limit the voting rights of those representing Scottish or Welsh constituencies at Westminster. The conundrum for both of the main UK parties is how to make good on the promises made to Scotland in the last few frantic days of the #IndyRef campaign, whilst at the same time serving their own political interests – with the 2015 general election (#GE2015) fast approaching.

Many further headaches await future governments. Some in Wales and the English regions may eye with envy the gains made by Scotland in those last febrile campaign hours. Can increased powers to Scotland be handed over before these questions are answered? Will a system of ‘English votes for England’ require an English First Minister to match those of Scotland and Wales? What will then be the role of the UK prime minister? Do the English regions really want more independence? Is the solution to the UK’s problems more politicians and more elections? The decision to allow 16-year-olds to vote in the referendum may lead to demands for the same in general elections. Will a youthful Facebook-savvy generation change the terms of political debate in a new Twitterocracy?  Whether or not they can vote, students of British politics can look forward to much heated debate in their seminar rooms.