The Scottish referendum: What it means


In early September, MIT graduate student Tom O’Grady penned a report for the Washington Post about the Scottish referendum, which was to decide on September 18 whether the country should split from the United Kingdom. O’Grady’s research in the Department of Political Science examines in part how economically marginalized groups form political opinions. The Scottish referendum — which was a vehicle, he observes, for the poor and disaffected to register their political anger —relates not only to his research but to his personal background as an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh and former political aide in the Scottish Parliament.

When the ballots were tallied, the “no” campaign had won 55.3 percent of the vote. SPECTRVM asked O’Grady to comment.

Q: What does the outcome mean?

A: It would be wrong to see the result as a ringing endorsement of the UK. The “yes” campaign energized Scotland, channeling huge dissatisfaction with politicians, and won more votes than anyone had been expecting until a few weeks ago. It gained very strong support for independence amongst working-class voters. Its vote was highest in places like Glasgow and Lanarkshire, which have some of the worst poverty and unemployment in Scotland. As I said in my Washington Post piece, for many people this vote ceased to really be about independence at all. Many voters clearly saw the vote as a way to register their anger at a political system that seems to have left them behind, and thought independence could result in lasting political change. The young, too, supported independence in huge numbers.

The polling evidence suggests that the “yes” campaign lost not because the Scots are heavily attached to Britain, but because people were scared by the economic consequences of independence. Independence supporters failed to provide enough detail on important questions such as what currency Scotland would use. They will learn from it, and change their future tactics; a campaign based mainly on emotion and short on concrete detail was ultimately not enough.

If independence supporters can address these concerns, the result could mean that support for independence continues to grow. Many people’s political attitudes tend to persist over time. If younger cohorts stay supportive as they age, support will increase. In addition, national identities may strengthen as the new, more federal UK starts to look more like a union of four countries than one single country, and Scotland gains more experience of governing its own affairs. So I can see another referendum in the next 25 years, and — although such forecasts are very uncertain! — I think last week’s vote shows that the “yes” side will win next time.

Q: In your analysis for the Washington Post you wrote, “Whatever the ultimate result … the UK is going to change irrevocably.” How?

A: The vote is likely to result in big constitutional change for the UK. Forty-five percent of voters backed full independence, and polls indicate that a far bigger proportion favor greater devolution of power away from the UK government in London to the Scottish government in Edinburgh. In the week before the vote, the major British parties, in an effort to shore up support for the union, promised that Scotland would gain greater self-governance in the event of a “no” vote. They will now be under great pressure to deliver on their promises.

Exactly what powers will be devolved remains vague, and will be the subject of political wrangling in the months to come. But the vote will certainly mean greater power for Scotland to set taxes and control its budget, as well as control over substantial new policy areas, probably including welfare policies.

Q: What are the benefits of the “no” vote?

A: Many independence supporters will be heartbroken by the result, but it may well be the best outcome for all concerned. Scotland will gain a lot more power, and will feel more like an independent country, without having to go through all the difficulties of setting up an entirely separate country. And the independence movement is now in a strong position to increase support for independence. Meanwhile, the financial markets will breathe a sigh of relief after avoiding difficult questions over what currency an independent Scotland would have used, and how it would have regulated its large financial industry. The UK as a whole has avoided a split that would have weakened it on the world stage. And other European countries with large national minorities such as Spain and Belgium will be relieved that Scotland has not set a precedent that could have led to the breakup of their countries.

A further lasting benefit of the referendum could be renewed political engagement amongst the Scottish electorate. Eighty-five percent voted, an extraordinarily high turnout compared both to previous Scottish elections and to almost any other advanced democracy without compulsory voting. The research tells us that participation is habit-forming. That means that these people may continue to vote in the future. And the referendum encouraged political discussion and awareness amongst many people who traditionally ignore politics altogether.

Q: Drawbacks?

A: Scotland’s voters are more liberal than in the UK as a whole, and will continue to be ruled by a Conservative government in London that enjoys virtually no support north of the border. There is something undeniably romantic about the idea of independence. Many in Scotland will see the “no” vote as a historic lost opportunity to create lasting social change, especially since the vote was held with such an unpopular government in power nationally, and after a deep recession. My own view, though, is that in the long run the vote is more likely to increase support for independence.

Finally, as a political scientist, I can’t deny feeling a bit deflated at not getting to see a new country being created! It would have been amazing to watch.

Q: Were you surprised?

A: I was slightly surprised by the scale of their victory, but not by the fact that they won. Running polls for a unique vote like this is far from an exact science, and in the end, like me, pollsters got the result correct but under-predicted its size by a small amount. As I discussed in the Washington Post, some of the “no” supporters may have been shy about telling pollsters how they planned to vote, since it seemed the less patriotic option. And the academic evidence suggests referendums are just very difficult to win. Psychology tells us that humans have an innate tendency to weight potential losses more heavily than equivalent gains, and this plays out in referendums. People are afraid of the consequences of drastic change, and tend to support the status quo.

Q: How did your Washington Post analysis come about?

A: It was published in a section of their website that uses social science research to explain current stories in the news. Most of the content comes from academics writing in a guest capacity. I regularly read it, and noticed that they didn’t have any material on the referendum, so I wrote them asking if they’d like an article, given my knowledge of Scottish politics. Their response to my morning email was, “That would be great, please send it by tonight.” So I wrote it in a few hours, and it was online the next day. It was a very fast turnaround compared to academic work, which usually takes years to write and publish!


Topics: Political science, Students, Graduate, postdoctoral, SHASS

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