Scotland – Understanding the result

In the fourth part of his analysis of Scottish politics after the referendum, Scottish historian and activist Neil Davidson looks at the detail of the referendum results .

Photo: Dauvit Alexander, flickr
Photo: Dauvit Alexander, flickr

Participation and outcome

By the time the electoral roll closed on 2 September 2014, 97% (4,283,392) of the Scottish population had registered to vote – 330,000 for the first time, including 109,000 of the 16- and 17-year-olds specially enfranchised for the occasion. This was the highest level of voter registration in Scottish or British history since the introduction of universal suffrage, with 118,000 people registering in August alone.

By the time the ballot closed at 10.00 pm on 18 September, 84.6% (3,619,915) had actually voted, compared with 63.8% in the 2010 British General Election and 50.4% in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election. The most recent General Election with comparable levels of Scottish voter participation to 2014 was 1950, the first to follow the Second World War and the establishment of the Welfare State, when 83.9% of those registered voted. But turnout in 2014 was also significantly up from the 60.4% who voted in the 1997 referendum what led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Shortly after that event, Eric Hobsbawm said:

We would have thought it impossible, twenty years ago, that only 60 per cent of the citizens would vote in the first election for a Scottish parliament in three hundred years, an election supposed to realise the historical ambition of the people of that country.

He went on the contrast the behaviour of the Scots unfavourably with that of black South Africans in 1994, before drawing this general conclusion:

Elections in the West are increasingly events managed by minorities, which do not involve majorities, at the cost of the integrity of the political process.

In 2014, Salmond could also draw on the South African comparison, but now to quite different effect.

Last Monday…I saw people queuing up – and it was not a short queue, [it was] a long queue – in Dundee to register to vote, almost reminiscent of the scenes in South Africa when some of a certain age remember 20 years or so ago people queued to vote in the first free elections.

Salmond was not, of course, comparing the Scots with the victims of Apartheid. This most astute of contemporary bourgeois politicians can legitimately be accused many things, but not of being an imbecile; he was simply drawing attention to the currently quite uncharacteristic popular enthusiasm being displayed for the political process. Whatever else might be said about the outcome of the referendum, no-one could claim that it was determined by a minority in conditions of generalised apathy.

Yet the nature of the outcome cannot be evaded. For, after these extraordinary levels of voter registration and only marginally less impressive levels of voter turnout, the Scots ultimately opted against establishing their own state by 55.3% (2,001,926) to 44.7% (1,617,989). Only 4 regions out of 32 voted Yes although, as we shall see, their location and composition is highly significant. Other than the number of votes for each side, and their breakdown to regional and constituency levels, what else do we know about the result? Here a certain amount of impressionism is unavoidable. Two opinion polls were carried out during and immediately after the referendum: one was by the polling organisation of Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft, the other by YouGov which accurately predicted the result.

Beyond these, I have had to rely on a combination of personal participant observation, information from others involved in the campaign and media reports. In spite of the difficulties, a number of tendencies are relatively clear.

Age: over-45s were most likely to oppose independence, particularly the over-65s, among who between two thirds and three quarter voted No; young voters (16-24) were almost evenly split and, while Ashcroft’s claim that 71% of the newly enfranchised 16 and 17-year olds voted Yes are unsustainable because of the smallness of his sample, it is nevertheless clear that they did not form the anti-independence bloc that initially appeared possible. The only age cohort with an unambiguous majority for independence was 25-39-year olds, although (since the polls measure overlapping age-ranges) this may also be true of 40-54-year olds.

Gender and ethnicity: between 3% and 9% more women voted No than men, though that may partly reflect female predominance in the older age groups and the extent of female opposition to independence in any case reduced over the course of the campaign. Based on pre-referendum polling, as many as two thirds of Scots of Asian origin may have voted Yes – a fact of some significance in Glasgow where this group has long been regarded by Labour as voting fodder for the Sarwar dynasty.

Class: Data compiled by John Mellon in June 2014 shows the level of support for independence to be highest among supervisors, small business owners and routine workers (e.g. assembly line workers, waiters and cleaners), with intermediate workers (e.g. secretaries and computer operators) and senior managers showing the lowest support for independence.

As this suggests, the Scottish bourgeoisie was overwhelmingly against independence. With a handful of exceptions, notably Brian Souter of Stagecoach and Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers Capital, large-scale capital was committed to the Union: Yes-supporting businesses tended to be small- or medium-sized concerns on the borderline with the petty bourgeoisie proper, relying on local markets and suppliers. Yes-supporting employers, mostly grouped in Business for Scotland [BfS], were criticised in the Unionist press precisely because of their irrelevance.

Close examination of Business for Scotland’s declared member list shows that the group has only a tiny handful of members who employ significant numbers of Scots, and literally none with a substantial cross-border trade. In other words, it could scarcely be less representative of the industries that provide the majority of Scotland’s private-sector jobs and which, according to the No campaign, are at risk from a Yes vote. … The Yes side’s 200, not all of whom are declared members of BfS, include just three identified as active directors of public limited companies. The vast majority are small businesspeople such as guesthouse and shopkeepers, or sole traders such as consultants, designers and accountants.

The contrast between them and the businesses supporting No – including Keith Cochrane of Weir Group, James Lithgow of Lithgow’s or Ian Wood of Wood Group – could not be more <“>stark.

The middle classes were also largely united in voting No, with their bohemian and cultural wings the main source of dissent. The working class – still the overwhelming majority of the Scottish population – was, however, deeply divided: support for Yes came most strongly from the poorest and most precarious communities, often in the peripheral housing schemes – indeed, it was from this group that most of the new voters emerged; support for No tended to be based among more securely employed and organised sections of the class, as is suggested by personal testimony from one Yes campaigner in Edinburgh on the day of the referendum:

I visited two areas to get the Yes vote out. The first one was Dryden Gardens [in Leith] which was made up of mainly well-paid workers and pensioners living in terraced houses. On the knocker half of them had changed their vote [to No] or were not prepared to share their intentions with me. I remember being thoroughly depressed by the experience. Following this, I walked round the corner to some Housing Association flats that were more blue-collar with a large number of migrant families. Every Yes voter I spoke to had held firm and had already voted or were waiting on family to go and vote together. It was very uplifting.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that these were tendencies, not an absolute division; but Edinburgh, where the vote was 61.10% (194,638) for No, 38.90% (123927) and for Yes, was illustrative of these class trends. Of all major cities in the UK, the Scottish capital has both the lowest percentage of total working age residents claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and, outside of London, the highest average gross annual earnings per resident. It has both a disproportionately large middle class and a working class employed in the sectors supposedly threatened by independence, including higher education (the University of Edinburgh is the city’s third biggest employer) and finance (RBS, Lloyds and Standard Life are respectively the fourth, fifth and sixth biggest employers).

One striking feature of the working-class Yes vote was that it was concentrated in what were formerly the great heartlands of Labour support. In Dundee and Glasgow the Yes vote was respectively 57.35% (53,629) and 53.49% (194,779), with similar results recorded in North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire; Inverclyde came within 87 votes of a Yes majority. These five regions alone accounted for over a quarter of the Yes votes. Partly because of these shifts in the Labour heartlands, the final result for the Yes side was better than had seemed possible when the campaign began in 2012.

Of the 51 polls conducted between 1986 and 2012, 39 showed support between 30 and 39%, only 3 showed it above 40%, while 9 showed it below 30%, but crucially, the majority of the latter were conducted after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – in other words, the lowest polling was chronologically nearest to the decision to hold the referendum.

As recently as May 2013 two pollsters associated with Ipsos Mori claimed that, with two thirds of voters intending to vote No, the outcome was not in doubt.The result was therefore a great achievement for the Yes campaign, but it is also important, if only for future reference, to record the greatest omission from its strategy.

If the strengths of the Yes campaign were breadth and diversity, one key weakness was a complete absence of focus on skilled and organised workers at their actual workplaces, although this is a common problem among European social movements which emerged since 2011. Of the trade unions, only ASLEF, the CWU, Community, the remnants of the NUM and USDAW openly supported a No vote. Similarly, only the Scottish areas of the RMT and the Prison Officer’s Association, and the habitually rebellious Edinburgh, Stirling, Fife and Falkirk branch of the CWU (the second-biggest in Scotland) supported a Yes vote. Some, notably the PCS, followed the lead of the Scottish TUC and tried to present both sides of the argument for their members to decide. It was clear, however, that even when unions could not formally endorse a No vote, the attitude of many full-time officials and lower levels of the bureaucracy were hostile to Yes.

The case of Unite is particularly interesting. Support for No was impossible, if only because more of the union’s members voted for the SNP than Labour in the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2011 (not in itself necessarily a vote for independence, of course); but in local branches the picture was different. It was only to be expected that BAE Systems Director Ian King would write to workers at the Govan shipyard warning of the dangers posed by independence to their jobs and pensions; but in aerospace and shipbuilding more widely, senior Unite representatives actively courted Tory ministers and Labour No MPs for meetings to ‘defend the defence industry’. In some workplaces CEO’s and managers organised ’employee briefings’, which were in effect mass meetings to agitate for a No vote in which the union organisation was effectively on the same side as the employer. It is not possible to assess how widespread or successful these ‘partnerships’ of employer and union actually were, but it certainly added to the overall momentum of Project Fear.

Against this the Yes campaign had no answer. Unorganised or precarious workers could be reached in their communities; but where workers were faced with an alliance of employers and unions arguing for No, as was the case in defence-related industries, then a response was required to challenge these position on the shop floor, even if this had to be mounted from outside. The failure to reach, let alone convince, the organised sections of the working class at least contributed towards the victory of the No camp.

Tomorrow – Part 5: What Next?

A substantially different version of these articles has appeared in New Left Review.


[1] Eric J Hobsbawm in conversation with Antonio Polito, The New Century, (London: Abacus, 2000), 115. For a detailed discussion of ‘majority disengagement’, see Peter Mair, Ruling in the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013), 17-44

[2] Ewen MacAskill, ‘Buoyant Salmond Compares Vote to South Africa’s Freedom Election’, The Guardian (10 September 2014).


[4] Jessica Elgot, ‘Why Are So Many Scots From Ethnic Minorities Voting Yes?’, The Huffington Post (14 June 2014),

[5] John Mellon, ‘Class Divisions and the Scottish Referendum’,

[6] Andrew Gilligan, ‘Small Firms Making Big Claims for Scottish Independence’, The Telegraph (31 August 2014).

[7] It is also worth noting that Labour-supporting commentators fawned over leading capitalists, particularly Wood, who criticised the Yes campaign. See, for a particularly egregious example of this type of grovelling, see Catherine McLeod, ‘There is Only One Real Team Scotland’, The Herald (10 September 2014).

[8] Personal communication (9 October 2014).

[9] Mark Diffley and Christopher McLean, ’35 Years of Scottish Attitudes towards Independence’, The Times (15 March 2012).

[10] Robert Worcester and Mark Diffley, ‘Why it Hard to See Much Hope for Salmond and His Political Dream’, The Times (9 May 2013).


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