Why Scotland said no to independence

Photo: Sam Ball / FRANCE 24 | A polling station in Edinburgh on Thursday, Septermber 18
Text by: Sam BALL
4 min

Why did Scotland reject what First Minister Alex Salmond dubbed a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for independence from the UK on Thursday? FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


, in Edinburgh

The win for the ‘no’ camp was a decisive blow to Scotland's independence movement and Salmond in particular who, on Friday, announced he would be stepping down as both First Minister and leader of the SNP.

The debate on the country's continued membership of the UK is now seemingly settled for at least a generation.

Opinion polls in the run up to the vote had but the “no” camp just marginally ahead, with one, a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, even claiming a slight lead for the "yes" campaign. In the end, “no” won by 55 percent to 45 percent, a ten point gap that, while still close, was certainly more decisive than many of the polls had predicted.

So, what happened in the final days and hours of campaigning to swing the vote in favour of staying in the union?

According to polling expert John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, the first thing to note is that, despite the attention grabbed by that Sunday Times, which put the yes vote ahead on 51 percent 10 days before the referendum, the no campaign was always the firm favourite.

“There was never at any point in the campaign a period in which an average of the polls put the “yes” vote ahead,” he told FRANCE 24.

Furthermore, a swing towards “no” when people headed to the polling stations was always to be expected, he argues.

“It’s true more often than not that in votes over constitutional change like this that polls overestimate the support for that change. Change is usually seen as the riskier option and when it comes to actually voting people row back from risk.”

Economics of "yes" failed to convince

If that explains the discrepancy between the polls and the final vote, it still leaves the question as to why Scottish people were unconvinced by the independence argument in the first place.

Though the “yes” campaign sought to stir up people’s passion for an independent homeland, ultimately many people voted over very pragmatic issues, particularly the economy, says Professor Curtice.

The figures seem to back this up. A YouGov poll on the day of the referendum found that only 35 percent thought Scotland would be economically better off under independence while 47 percent thought it would be worse off. Other polls gave similar results throughout the campaign.

Both sides made claim and counter claim as to what would happen to Scotland’s economy under independence. But Thursday’s vote suggests the “no” camp won this battle.

“People simply weren’t convinced by the economic case for independence,” says Professor Curtice.

This is not to say sentimental reasons did not also play a significant role in the decision to spurn independence. In particular, the way people in Scotland see their own identify seems to have been a key factor.

Despite the drive for independence, surveys show that a significant proportion of Scots identify, in part or in full, as being British, and such people were always more likely to vote “no” to independence.

“The dual sense of identity many Scots have as both Scottish and British was a big factor,” says Professor Curtice. “People didn’t ask themselves ‘do I want independence?’, they asked themselves ‘do I want to leave the UK?’ and there is still a very significant section of the population that very much indentifies itself as British.”

Ultimately, however, too many people were simply unwilling to take a chance on the unknown, believes Professor Curtice, preferring the safe option that staying in the union represented.

“Polls showed that people were more likely to see independence as a risk,” he says, “and at the end of the day there just wasn’t enough appetite for that risk.”

Did "yes" camp get it wrong?

Indeed, the “no” campaign often sought to play up the dangers that leaving the UK would bring, warning of the threats to jobs, pensions and the economy.

This led to accusations of seeking to play on people’s fears. The “yes” camp, in contrast, sought to portray itself as the voice of hope.

Does the defeat for the independence movement suggest the “yes” campaign got it wrong, therefore?

Not according to Dr Alan Convery, an expert on Scottish politics from the University of Edinburgh.

He believes Scots voted “no” despite the “yes” campaign, not because of it.

“It was perceived as being a very good, well run campaign that gained lots of grass roots support and captured people’s passion in a way the ‘no’ campaign failed to do,” he says.

“Historically, support for independence in Scotland has always been around the 33 percent mark,” he continued. “The ‘yes’ campaign managed to take that up to almost half the country, that’s still a considerable achievement.”

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