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How fewer than 200,000 Scots could decide the referendum: your cut out and paste guide to the independence result

If the Scottish independence referendum is close, it will swing on the voters too long ignored. That prospect alone could change Scotland.

Cumbernauld, wikimedia

The Scottish independence referendum campaign starts ‘properly’ this week. All of the last two and a half years have been a mere preliminary or pre-season warm-up to the start of the ‘official’ contest.

Therefore, in the manner of those cut out and keep guides to the World Cup and Eurovision here is an analysis to the possible result, different permutations and interpretations of the result, along with some of the consequences. And crucially, how it could be won by a very small group of Scottish voters.

Here then are Seven Stories of the Possible Result:

1. Under 40% Yes vote:

This would be the end of the independence debate for the foreseeable result. Labour would see this as a vindication of their hardball partisan detestation of the SNP – viewing it as a positive foregrounding for the 2015 UK and 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. This would be a huge mistake, similar to Labour’s over-interpretation of its 2010 Scottish showing, running into the 2011 contest.

2. 40% plus Yes vote:

This for ages has been the minimum threshold for a respectable Yes vote. It could be called the second (but this time informal) 40% rule.

3. 45% Yes vote:

This is getting into the terrain of a closer result – with the No lead being whittled down to a mere 10%.

4. 46% plus Yes vote:

Another important psychological barrier crossed with the No vote lead down to a single figure of 8%.

5. 48% plus Yes vote:

The mirror image of the 1979 referendum result when Yes won 52:48. This would have the prospect of leaving a bitter aftertaste with some Yes supporters. And with little legitimacy or confidence in the future in the No camp.

6. Up to 52% Yes vote:

A narrow Yes vote with a sense of brittleness and lack of magnanimity in both parts of Yes and No in the immediate period afterwards. The dynamics of the situation would surely force the best voices in both camps to come together, while it is highly likely that a bitter inquest will begin in parts of the No camp.

7. 52% plus Yes vote:

A clear Yes victory and one which will force both sides to immediately accept the situation. Elements of the No camp and the British establishment would be shocked and in a sense of denial – which would produce an element of disorientation on their part.

Take one of the above scenarios. Imagine a close Yes/No vote won by the forces of No. Imagine in detail the possible contours and shape of a close result. Take the prospect of a 46% Yes vote. This would not be that different on the surface from the just under 46% the SNP achieved in the Scottish Parliament elections. Indeed, it would be presented and glossed over in this way by part of the mainstream media and general commentary.

The argument would be that nearly three years of campaigning and political activism had produced next to no movement and traction. The exact opposite would be the case and illuminates the scale of political change so far, the fluidity in the campaign, and the scale of further movement needed by the Yes forces.

The difference between a 46% Yes vote and just under 46% SNP vote in 2011 is huge. It can be seen in the incontrovertible fact that the 2011 result was achieved on a 50% turnout, whereas the 2014 one could be on something like a 75% turnout (I doubt the claims of a 80% turnout for the simple reason that the last time Scotland had such a turnout was 1951!).

There is thus a chasm of difference between the two levels of support which illustrates the political transformation underway. In 2011 the SNP won the support of 22.9% of the electorate (nearly the same share of the electorate that Tony Blair won in his unconvincing third term victory of 2005 which gave New Labour a parliamentary majority of 66 seats). A Yes vote of this size would be the equivalent of 34.5% of the electorate.

Assuming an approximate 80% SNP Yes vote this would mean that 16% of the electorate which is non-SNP have made their way to Yes, but that this is not enough to produce a Yes majority. What needs to further change if Yes is to have a realistic chance of winning?

The Scottish electorate eligible to vote in the referendum as of the end of March 2014 is made of 4,218,562 voters: 4,120,494 Scottish Parliament voters and 96,068 16/17 year olds registered. This is an all-time high figure for the electorate and will be higher still in September.

Such an electorate would produce on a 46% Yes vote, the following division in actual votes: Yes: 1,455,404, No: 1,708,517, a gap between the two of 253,113 voters.

Such a gap would represent 6% of the electorate which could be overturned by any one of the following changes:

6% of the electorate not currently voting move to Yes – representing 253,114 voters;

  • 3% move from No to Yes – 126,557 voters;

  • Or a mixture of the two: comprising 4% of the electorate equally split along the above lines: 2% moving from No to Yes – 84,372 and 2% moving from non-voting to Yes – 84,371 – 168,743 people changing their minds.

This is how close, and how small a number, this referendum and Scotland’s future could turn on. What is, and where are, this constituency of less than 200,000 people who have the opportunity to shape the fate of the nation?

One observation worth underlining in a campaign with churn, change, fluidity and uncertainty, is that this movement of potentially under 200,000 voters represents a net change, with underneath this voters moving back and forward between the rival camps, and to ‘don’t know’, and back again.

With this caveat, the Scotland that could possibly find itself as having the crucial decision making power is made up disproportionately of ‘the missing Scotland’, those people who have in the previous generation become disconnected from the stale diet of predictable politics on offer from Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.

This critical group of prospective ‘swing’ voters in Scotland are younger, more working class, female, and likely to live in the West of Scotland. None of our political parties or political discussion has paid any real, substantive notice of this disconnection from public life for several decades. Even more, much media, professional and wider cultural currency talk about such groups in recent years has tended to patronise, pathologise and even want to blame such people for the conditions they find themselves in.

It is a rather rich irony that as our referendum campaign enters the final stages of the ‘official’ contest, with all its legal and ‘balance’ considerations, the ultimate decision could sit with a part of Scotland that many have chosen to denigrate, ridicule or ignore.

Scotland’s future could come down to as little as one in 25 voters. If it does it will mark a watershed moment for our country as a society and democracy: of people kicking back against the limited democracy of the truncated electorate of 50% turnouts at the Scottish Parliament, and wanting to bring the ‘missing Scotland’ and its voices back into the public sphere. That is for some of us as significant, or nearly as significant, as the result itself: the chance to heal our broken society and to challenge the narrow sense of what has been seen as possible politically. Literally a very different Scotland is potentially emerging as one of the consequences of our referendum debate.

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About the author
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic on Scottish and UK politics, power, democracy and social change. He has written or edited over two dozen books including Scotland the Bold and the newly published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On (edited with Simon Barrow). His writing can be found at: www.gerryhassan.com


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