The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum: From Party to Civil Society

On 18 September 2014 a referendum was held on whether Scotland should remain part of the UK or become independent—the first time that complete political secession had been on offer. The absolute majority won by the SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election provided the party with the mandate to proceed with independence plans. The official campaign for independence—Yes Scotland—was launched in 2012 by the SNP as the governing party in the Scottish Parliament. Other political party participation in the Yes campaign included the Scottish Green Party and Scottish Socialist Party. In opposition was the Better Together campaign bringing together Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour as the three main British-wide parties. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) also opposed independence but was excluded from Better Together on the grounds that they had little electoral presence in Scotland. The result was a decisive, if close, No vote of 55 % for remaining in the UK. However, the 45 % who voted Yes for independence was considerably higher than what was being reported in surveys over the previous decade or so, in which the percentage in favour of independence had consistently been between 20 and 30 %. In the week preceding the referendum, one polling company had a slender majority of 52 % in favour of independence. As the referendum approached, the pro-independence campaign was exhibiting signs of becoming a social movement involving mobilisation and no shortage of enthusiasm, at small group levels, both on- and offline.

The degree of public engagement surrounding the vote, as well as the level of involvement of civil society with the campaign for independence, was an unexpected aspect of the referendum campaign. Several groups, organisations and individuals with no previous connection with the SNP, or in some cases to any political party, lent their support for the Yes campaign. Across a range of communities local groups were able to grow through the Yes Scotland website, where organised local events could be listed, as well as through local email lists and Facebook pages (Lynch 2015). One Yes campaign office in Dundee claimed to have distributed 150,000 leaflets in the three-month leading up to the referendum. It also created websites and several Facebook accounts and distributed thousands of Scottish flags, or saltires (Castle 2014 , The New York Times). Alongside campaign offices, the lead-up to the referendum saw numerous small and informal pro-independence, left-wing groups being formed by activists across Scotland, representing a diverse range of social groups and localities. Some of these were in areas with high levels of deprivation. It became clear that sizeable portions of intending Yes voters were those living in deprived communities who had previously abstained from voting for political parties in elections (McLean and Thomson 2014). According to one source, only half of those voting Yes had voted for the SNP in a previous election (Mooney and Scott 2015).These activists and groups were critical in persuading large numbers of people ‘left behind’ by economic policies to register to vote for the first time. Non-party political organisations like the Radical Independence Campaign (http://radical. scot/) were noted for their activism and canvassing within deprived communities aimed at people not currently registered to vote. Other groups reflected shared occupational interests, such as NHS for Yes or Farming for Yes, or different ethnic groups such as English Scots for Yes and Scots Asians for Yes. Mobilisation ranged from new online think tanks such as the National Collective—a forum for pro-independence cultural professionals like artists, writers and musicians—to local and small-scale meetings and gatherings in town halls and community centres.

Civil society groups were less prominently involved in the No campaign. Most of the business community, including the Scottish branch of the Confederation of Business Industry, favoured a No vote. But not all did. A smaller initiative, Business for Scotland, supporting the Yes campaign was established in 2013 by six small business owners. Evidence suggests that small and medium-sized businesses—whose customers and suppliers are predominantly in Scotland—were more likely than larger businesses to support independence, and that firms with a particular dependence on UK markets were especially anxious about the risks associated with independence (Mackay 2014). Both Bell and McGoldrick (2014) and MacKay (2014) find that businesses in Scotland whose customer base is UK-wide were more worried about independence than transnational firms, who are used to operating in multiple markets, and those who trade primarily within Scotland (Keating 2015).

Trade union views on independence were mixed. Concerns over the economic risks of independence leading to fears over job losses, for example in the oil and gas industries, would undoubtedly have been a factor accounting for trade union support for the No position of the Labour Party. It was the reason many workers eventually voted No (Mooney and Scott 2015). The Scottish Trade Union Council adopted an explicitly neutral position on independence, at the same time favouring greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. However, some trade unionists joined a number of Labour Party dissenters to form a group called Labour for Yes (Keating 2015: 86).

Along with economic concerns, age was also a crucial factor in shaping opinions. The referendum was said to have re-engaged young people in politics: amongst those under 35, for example, the turnout for the referendum was 80 %. Data from YouGov (YouGov 2014, cited in Paterson 2015) showed the 16-24 age group to be evenly split; the highest proportion voting Yes was among ages 25-39 (55 %), and even amongst people aged 65 or older there was a sizeable minority (34 %) voting Yes. More affluent elderly voters were much more likely to vote No. Without the votes of the population aged over 65, 77 % of whom voted against independence, Scotland now would be an independent country (figures quoted in Seth-Smith 2015). A likely reason for this was concerns about pensions and the argument that an independent Scotland would put occupational pensions at risk. On the whole, older voters also have stronger attachments to and direct experience of a British welfare state and for that reason continue to view collective welfare provision and social justice as best secured through the Labour Party and the British unitary state.

Traditional Scottish unionism also lent its support to the No campaign: the Orange Order for Scotland established its own British Together campaign in 2012 and organised anti-independence marches and protests during 2014. But it would be misleading to equate a No vote simply with a preference for Britishness or Unionism. The question put to the Scottish people was ‘Should Scotland be an Independent Country?’ Whilst the question was clear, it excluded the possibility of choosing an option on enhanced devolution (‘devo-max’) in which the Scottish Parliament would be given decision-making powers over all areas aside from defence and foreign affairs. This was significant because opinion polls had indicated devo-max, not independence, as the preferred option for Scottish voters. Each of the three parties involved in the No campaign had produced plans for some degree of further devolution beyond the status quo. Although the UK government had refused to include a further extension of devolution powers as an additional question in the referendum, in the weeks immediately before the referendum, the UK prime minister and the No campaign vowed to deliver devo-max in the event of a No vote. As a result, those voting No would have included SNP supporters and others for whom devo-max was the preferred option (Rosie 2014).

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