A few days ago a woman I know told me that she was no longer going to accompany me to a meeting. The clear implication of her email was that she had made this decision because I had come out as a No voter. Indeed at one point she wrote about her annoyance at my ‘stance on the campaign for a better, fairer Scotland’. What I find astonishing is that this person knows that for over ten years I’ve written or commissioned books, organised events, and given talks, all with the aim of bringing about a better Scotland. But clearly none of this matters, now I’ve voted No.
What is more evident by the day is that many Yes voters (not all of them) firmly believe that No voters are morally inferior. When I’ve made my voting intention clear to some Yes voters I’ve watched them curl their lip and move back slightly, presumably to avoid contamination. I’ve heard, from someone who works there, that there’s a nursery in the west end of Glasgow where a mother is threatening to withdraw her child, and encourage others to do likewise, simply because the head voted No.
Many Yes campaigners seem to believe that No voters are morally questionable because they are SELFISH. By not supporting Yes they have let their fellow Scots down and condemned the poor to a life of misery. In short, they have put their pensions, personal comfort, wealth, and security first.
However, the great irony in this view is that it’s completely blind to the core reality of the official Yes campaign – its appeal to selfishness.
I concentrate here on how the Yes campaign encouraged voters to think about their own self-interest. I could, however, write another complete article on how their whole approach was to concentrate on Scotland’s people, Scotland’s needs, and Scotland’s wealth, in the process urging us not to give a damn about anybody else, including expatriate Scots, outside our borders. I’ve shuddered every time I heard folk talking about how indebted the UK is, how much better off we would be if we left the Union, and how we should just leave them all to pick up the pieces.
Why vote Yes?
The most obvious reason for people to support independence is because they have an a priori belief that Scotland should be a sovereign, independent country. People of this persuasion are more likely to believe that, since 1707, Scots have been a colonized and oppressed people. For them independence is a ‘liberation struggle’. It’s a struggle worth pursuing even if many Scots, themselves included, would be worse off.
I don’t agree with these sentiments but I can respect their integrity. The problem for the SNP is that there are not enough people of this view in Scotland to win any referendum. Estimates vary. But few believe that more than a third of Scots uphold this nationalist perspective. Apparently Claire Howell, the Yes campaign’s positivity guru, even advised the leadership to avoid talking about ‘independence’ as it wasn’t playing well in focus groups.
So to win a referendum the SNP had to come up with other reasons to persuade enough people to vote Yes. The one they pursued with greatest fervor throughout the campaign was the idea that voters would be better off. In short, they appealed largely to voters’ individual, material self-interest. From time to time Alex Salmond tried to encourage a sense of grievance against England – it’s our pound too, they are bluffing on the currency union and we’ll not pay our share of the debt – but there was hardly any appeal to Scots to vote Yes to protect Scottish identity or culture or even out of love for the country. Essentially the official Yes campaign was not about heart, but pocket.
Indeed in Spring 2014 it became evident that money was the tail wagging the independence dog. Huge posters proclaimed the country’s wealth and prosperous future. Every Yes leaflet read like a list of prizes redeemable in the event of a Yes vote. ‘Indy bonuses’ of varying sizes. Free childcare. Cheaper holidays. Lower energy bills. Higher pensions. All on top of better public services and greener policies.
When we now look at what was on offer, it is hard to avoid using that annoying but fashionable phrase – ‘what’s not to like?’ Indeed couched in these terms it is amazing that only 45% of those voting actually supported independence.
Another plank in the SNP’s campaign to secure Yes votes was the idea of ‘continuation’: basically if we voted for independence nothing would change too much as we would keep the Queen. The pound. Access to BBC programmes. And anything else Scots seemed to value about the existing Union.
In the Spring of 2014, however, when the campaign to persuade Scots that they would be better off was at its height, Yes essentially stalled in the polls. The pitch wasn’t working. The Yes campaign then pushed two things to the fore, The supposed risks the status quo posed to the NHS. And social justice. All of a sudden the Yes campaign seemed to be about the bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefit and food banks. Prominent nationalists who had shown little interest in inequality now started to make this their burning issue. For example, Sean Connery told the press that his number one reason for voting Yes was for ‘social justice’. Aye right. Where were the policies to achieve that? What track record did the SNP have in redistributing to the poor as opposed to the middle classes? In the closing months of the campaign, it became all too evident that social justice, at least for the official Yes campaign, was little more than an election strategy. However, this was not true for many Yes campaigners who, in the closing weeks of the campaign, managed to convince some voters that independence was an opportunity for a fairer Scotland.* This, coupled with a Tory Westminster regime which had become increasingly nasty, certainly led some people to vote Yes.
Nonetheless the official Yes campaign’s message, as communicated in posters, leaflets and in the media, was not an appeal to voters’ Scottishness, high ideals or a radically different future but essentially an attempt to get them to vote Yes as they would be personally better off. We know from post-referendum surveys that those who were most likely to vote Yes were those living in deprived areas and folk who were unemployed. In short, people who had very little to lose and every reason to believe their future might be better were likely to vote yes for understandable reasons. Many nationalists didn’t like the way the Yes campaign played down self-determination and overemphasized money but nonetheless they were still likely to vote for independence. But over half the electorate simply did not buy the Yes campaign’s message.
The academic who can help us see why is Professor Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist who won the Nobel prize for economics in part for his research on ‘loss aversion’. Kahneman’s work shows that people are much more motivated, and affected, by losses than gains. So losing £100 has much more emotional impact on a person than winning the same amount. This helps explains what is often termed ‘the endowment effect’ whereby people put a higher value on what they currently own than don’t own. All this means that people aren’t likely to risk what they currently have for some uncertain gain in the future. Studies show that women are significantly more loss averse than men which may account for the fact that the Yougov poll after the referendum reports that 51% of men but only 42% of women voted Yes.
Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum poll suggested that 62% of No voters were always going to vote that way and that 72% made up their mind at least a year before. Attachment to the Union would have been an issue for some but it is much more likely that their firm stance was due to ‘loss aversion’ – why risk losing what they had for uncertain gains? If you think this a horrible economic calculation then please remember that this was the whole tenor of the official Yes campaign to which most people were exposed.
It is estimated that around 56% of ABC1s – the professional and middle classes –voted No. Did they do so essentially out of selfishness? Of course, that’s what many on the Yes side believe and it certainly goes with the grain of ‘holier than thou’ Scotland.
Inevitably it is much more complicated than that. We were all urged to vote to be better off – to think primarily of our own self-interest – but quite simply the majority of ABC1s did not believe it: the problem wasn’t simply loss aversion but the credibility of the Yes campaign. The Yes proposition was that if we supported independence we’ll all be more prosperous. There would be no difficult transition. No period of economic instability. People wouldn’t lose their jobs. Prices wouldn’t rise. Set up costs would be minimal. And others, particularly the EU, member states and Westminster, would just agree to what Scotland wanted. Of all the groups, ABC1s were the most likely to be sceptical of this prospectus: their occupational roles and professional training mean that they are even more likely than your average person to have a particular respect for legality, processes, principles, facts and objective reality. The SNP’s independence case didn’t stand scrutiny as the idea of a painless, seamless transition to a better tomorrow evaporated as soon as anyone started to ask searching questions.
Indeed on the eve of the referendum 55 of the UK’s lead academic economists wrote to the Financial Times, independently of the No campaign, to say that independence was ‘ a gamble with very poor odds’. Given the volatility of oil, the difficulties with currency, and Scotland’s aging population they argued that if Scots voted for independence the ‘downside risks for current and future generations are huge.’
Given this assessment why then did 40 per cent plus of the ABC1 group actually vote Yes? A sizeable number of them would have been nationalists, predisposed to vote Yes irrespective of any risks. Many of the others may well have thought that it was in their economic interest to vote for independence. In the words of the proverb, ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.’ Even if Scotland had gone through a painful restructuring process with job losses, volatile tax receipts and large cuts to the public sector some professional Scots would have benefited from independence. For example. there would have been wonderful opportunities for civil servants and would-be civil servants as some jobs were relocated from London to Scotland. A favoured few would have been given postings as ambassadors to exotic places. Consultants, lawyers, negotiators, and those in commercial property were likely to see opportunities for their services. There may have been an exciting role for some broadcasters and journalists with the new arrangements for Scottish broadcasting. Those in tourism may have seen increased visitor numbers to Scotland and would have benefited. Entrepreneurs may have managed to cash in as Scotland broke from the past and moved towards a different future. At the risk of being cynical it was always evident that there was a group of businessmen and right wing policy types who saw an independent Scotland as a wonderful opportunity to make money.
In short, there would have been a tartan gravy train steaming behind an independence vote. But nonetheless there were bound to be losers – most notably some of those working in the 962,000 jobs identified by Professor Brian Ashcroft as being dependent on the Union as some of them may have lost their jobs, and there could have been job considerable casualties from the additional public sector cuts.
And what of the cultural figures who played such an important part in the campaign? Many of them thought they would benefit from independence – not necessarily financially but because the prevailing atmosphere would be better for their work. They loved the buzz and excitement in the run up to the referendum. Indeed some were tweeting after the vote about how much they missed the attention that Scotland had attracted round the globe.
The pose struck by many cultural figures while not outright selfishness often appeared to me as self-indulgent. They may thrive in conditions of uncertainty but this isn’t how most ordinary folk would wish to live their lives. Indeed I felt squeamish at the sight of extremely wealthy Scottish actors and writers, who don’t live here anymore and who are filled by the romantic longings of migrants, urging ordinary Scots to embrace the vision and leap off a cliff to a decidedly uncertain future. If it went wrong these wealthy ex-pat Scots had nothing to lose.
I felt the same about folk like Tariq Ali, Billy Bragg, George Monbiot and Natalie Bennett who were happily cheering Scots on to take a giant leap which would give them, as thinkers, endless opportunities for interest and analysis but wouldn’t risk the future for their sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours, or fellow citizens.
But it was older people – the 65+ age group who have been particularly lambasted for selfishness. These are people who were born in the 1940s or earlier. They are the Scots in our midst who are more likely to have memories of the war, the setting up of the Welfare State, and a strong emotional attachment to the Union. This may well have predisposed many of them not to vote with their pocket but their hearts as it didn’t simply boil down to whether they were going to be more prosperous. Nowadays many pensioners are quite well off – better off than many in work. They are at that period in life when they are less interested in acquiring than in giving away. Many of the older voters I know were not so much worried about what a Yes vote meant for them, as for what it might mean for their children and grandchildren. It stands to reason that these are the people with considerable life experience. Many found it particularly hard to accept the rosy picture of independence painted by the Yes campaign.
For me one of the great ironies of the official Yes campaign is that it turned the referendum into a vote essentially about money and self-interest. Yet for all the emphasis on money during the campaign many on the Yes side had a cavalier disdain for ordinary folk’s economic well-being: they simply didn’t take seriously enough the currency issue or how independence could affect jobs, the economy or public services.
Undoubtedly the failure of the Yes campaign to provide a convincing economic case for independence encouraged considerable numbers of people to vote No. Where one person sees selfishness in a No vote another can just as easily see prudence and a concern for the nation’s well-being. Where one person sees a Yes vote as a sign of confidence and a belief in the future, another can see it as self-interest or self-indulgence or a casual disregard for the welfare of others.
I don’t, however, commend this line of argument. Calling folk ‘selfish’ is pejorative and little good can come of it. For Scotland’s sake we should all stop judging each other morally on the basis of how we voted. Surely it is best if we accept that voters on both sides had their own reasons. What matters now is that we look for ways we can all work together to create a better and fairer Scotland.
Before the referendum Carol Craig set out her reasons for voting No in Scottish Review.
This is the conclusion Professor Ailsa Henderson has reached as a result of her research. But the million dollar question still remains – how would the SNP, realistically the party likely to lead an independent Scotland, create a socially just Scotland? Not only had they ruled out most of the tools that might have made a difference to inequality – higher tax bands and restrictions on bonus payments, for example – and failed to support a living wage for public sector workers, they had committed to lowering corporation tax. What’s more, the SNP’s main approach to a fairer Scotland is to increase growth. But you just have to look at New Labour’s administrations in the UK and the American experience to see that economic growth does not help reduce inequality as it is the rich who benefit disproportionately.