The referendum in Scotland marks a fundamental shift in consciousness, with thousands brought into political activity and discussion for the first time. By looking at the survey statistics on how and why people voted, one thing stands out: the desire for change and a break from the status quo of the Establishment and capitalist austerity.
After three years of intense and closely fought campaigning, Scotland has rejected independence with just over 55% of voters choosing ‘No’. Over 3.5 million people turned out to vote on the 18th September, with over 84% of registered voters taking part. This was the highest turnout for an election or referendum taking place in Britain since the introduction of Universal Suffrage.
This mass participation is hardly surprising as it was, for many, the biggest political event in their lives. The question of independence led to a political awakening across Scotland, with those as young as 16 drawn into political discussion and forced to make a decision about their own and their country’s future.
A Yes vote would have marked a political earthquake, ending the 307 year-old political union between Scotland, England and Wales. Separation was presented by the Yes campaign as the only solution to escaping the vicious austerity put in place by the Tory-led Coalition in Westminster. On the other hand the scaremongering Better Together campaign warned of the disastrous effects that independence would have on Scotland without the ‘safety net’ of the United Kingdom.
The burning desire for change
A referendum, or any election, is only a static picture – a snapshot of a single moment – which cannot capture the complex currents of public consciousness. As Marxists, it is important to look beneath the stats and figures to analyse the underlying processes at play in society. In this respect, the most notable conclusion is that the referendum marked a turning point in expressing the anger and frustration in Scottish society, which reflects the yearning for a radical break from the status quo that is felt across Britain.
Despite their limitations, statistics and surveys can help to shed more light on the situation and help us to look more closely at the reasons behind people’s decision in the referendum and why a No vote was not – for many – simply a vote for the status quo British establishment. In this respect, a breakdown of the referendum results and the survey conducted by Lord Ashcroft in the immediate wake of the referendum, in which 2,000 people in Scotland were asked a range of questions about how and why they voted, provides some interesting material for analysis.
The fact that the Yes Campaign still won 45% of the vote shows that there is a real desire for change and an anger against the current system, which lead many people to vote for what they felt was the only possible solution. Indeed, 71% of Yes voted cited a “disaffection with Westminster politics” as an important factor in their decision to vote for independence. The out-of-touch political class in Westminster, which offers nothing but different shades of austerity, therefore, has driven people towards the idea of separation.
On the other side, meanwhile, 47% of No voters stated that their primary reason for voting No was due to fears over the economy, with only 27% declaring any motivation due to a feeling of “Britishness”. This referendum, therefore, had less to do with national sentiments, and everything to do with social and economic issues.
Yes – a vote against austerity
Of the 32 councils in Scotland, four showed a majority Yes vote. The largest Yes victory was seen in Dundee, with over 57% opting for independence. Yes majorities were also seen in Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire. These regions of Scotland, especially Glasgow and the surrounding areas, have suffered heavily from de-industrialisation over the last few decades and as such have felt the effects of austerity more harshly than others. Unemployment in these areas is also very high, especially when compared to areas who voted heavily for No; for example in Edinburgh, where the Yes choice only received around 39% of the vote, the average unemployment is 6.6% whereas in Dundee the unemployment is at 11.4%. This trend is shown in the councils with the lowest unemployment; Shetland with 3.2% and Aberdeenshire with 3.3%, both of which voted strongly No, with over 60% of voters in these areas siding with staying a part of Britain.
We can see here that the traditionally more industrial working class areas, where people have suffered most greatly from the policies of the Tories and New Labour, are desperate for a hasty solution to Westminster’s policies. Many see the economic problems in Scotland as personal attacks by the ‘nasty Tories’. However, we have to emphasise that stopping the Tories is not enough – it is the global crisis of capitalism that has brought austerity, which is being implemented across the globe by governments of left, right, and centre. Only breaking with capitalism on a socialist basis will break with austerity.
Labour: failing to provide a real alternative
All throughout the independence debate, it could be seen that many of those in the working class were drawn to support independence by the Yes campaign’s promises of a better and fairer Scotland. The Yes majority councils listed above are all traditional Labour strongholds; with Labour having jumped into bed with the Tories and Lib Dems, many rejected the call of the Labour leaders for a No vote. Many saw the Labour Party as traitors to their original working class and socialist ideals – as a party that was, and is, propping up the British establishment.
Following the second televised Salmond-Darling televised debate on the 25th of August, 35% of Labour voters said they supported independence, up from 18% prior to the debate. Meanwhile many ‘left’ parties joined forces with the SNP to support independence as a socialist solution, commonly presenting themselves as the ‘everyman’ alternative to the out-of-touch Westminster cronies.
According to the Lord Ashcroft Referendum Poll, when asked about how they voted in the 2011 Scottish parliament general election compared to the referendum, 2% of Conservative voters and 23% of Lib-Dem voters chose independence compared to 31% of Labour voters. This is most likely due to disheartened and disillusioned Labour supporters seeking a change from Westminster austerity, with their own party promising big cuts if elected in 2015. This has led to spin-off groups, such as “Labour for Independence”, who reject the “neo-liberal policies of Westminster”. Independence, however, would not benefit the labour movement, but would lead to a capitalist Scotland and a fractured, and hence, weakened working class across both sides of the border.
Labour’s failure to address the question of independence with a socialist and class based argument led to many viewing an independent Scotland as the answer to the inequality caused by capitalism and class society. This was the vague and ‘progressive’ view put forward by the Yes campaign. However, the independence promised by Salmond was not one that offered any real change to workers and youth, but one that included business-friendly measures such as cutting corporation tax, retaining the pound, and joining NATO.
Independence and the NHS
In terms of gender, although both groups voted mostly for No, women voted slightly more in favour of rejecting independence than men. This trend has been seen consistently throughout the opinion polls in the lead up to the referendum. The commonly given reasons for this are that women are simply more ‘risk-averse’ and more likely to consider the economic impact on the ‘family budget’. Although these ‘maternal instincts’ are very much traits assigned by capitalist gender roles, it is women who have borne the brunt of the austerity cuts. They often hold more precarious part-time jobs and are charged with child care. Single parent families are more likely to be headed by women, and services such as sexual assault and domestic violence support centres, as well as child care services, have been ruthlessly cut due to austerity measures.
In the Ashcroft referendum poll, the NHS was named the most important issue determining how both Yes and No voters decided. However, while the NHS was named by 50% of women asked as the most important factor in making their decision, it only majorly influenced 39% of men. The NHS is invariably the first major public service targeted by austerity cuts; a key point in the Yes campaign’s rhetoric. However, the Yes campaign’s case that independence was the only way to protect the NHS was severely undermined by the news two days before the vote that the Scottish NHS has ran at a £400 million deficit, and therefore the SNP administration is set to make nearly half a billion in cuts to the service in the next few years. Women are more likely to hold nursing carer and lower administrative jobs within the NHS, which are seen as the most expendable when it comes to austerity measures. The revelation of planned SNP cuts to the NHS showed the cracks in their progressive, reformist image and was possibly an important factor in swaying women towards No.
The radicalisation of the youth
A major difference between the referendum and previous elections which took place in Britain is the fact that for the first time 16-17 year olds could vote. Given the radical mood for change among young people, 71% of 16-17 year olds chose Yes, according to the Ashcroft poll. This generation, who know of nothing but a world of crisis and cuts, were understandably drawn in by the promises of change offered by the Yes campaign.
The 18-24 age bracket, however, shows a sharp drop in support for independence to 48%. This could be due to people in this age group being in higher education and full-time employment for the first time, and so were wary of the unknown effects that independence may have had on their education and jobs.
Across all the age groups from 25-64, an increasing support for No can be seen with age. In most cases, however, there was still a slight majority in favour of Yes. This reflects the disillusionment across the board with the political establishment in Westminster and the search for a change to continued austerity. As people get older, however, the concerns over the uncertainty associated with change increase, and ordinary working families feel like they have more at risk.
The oldest age group, 65+, shows the polar opposite to the youngest group, 16-17, with 73% favouring No. With the former group greatly outnumbering the latter, this strong No vote from the over 65s greatly contributed to the success of the No vote. The 65+ group is among those most at risk from austerity; but the contentious issue of pensions, as well as the ever present uncertainty over the economy that independence would bring, may have persuaded the majority of them to vote No.
Unlike most of the other age groups, this older generation also have more experience of the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s – a time when there were more jobs, better prospects of advancing yourself, and free higher education for the first time. This was a period when capitalist was actually able to offer reforms, and this has undoubtedly had an impact on hardening illusions that capitalism might be able to offer similar reforms today.
The fight for socialism continues
There is now a great deal of demoralisation among the Yes supporters and a feeling that the only chance for change has been lost. But a Yes vote would not have provided that change that many hoped for. Instead, it would have split the British working class along national lines. The task now is to turn this desire for change into a struggle for a genuine alternative – for a socialist transformation of society.
As Marxists we must acknowledge that class unity is a fundamental component in the struggle against capitalism. Workers and youth must not be divided by borders in their struggle to transform society. No party or government that accepts capitalism, no matter how left leaning, or how separate from Westminster, can offer a solution to the current crisis unfolding in capitalism as it will still be operating under the laws of capitalism.
The working classes across the United Kingdom and internationally have much more in common with each other than with any bourgeoisie government in any parliament. The fact that many were politically mobilised for the first time, showing the discontent among the working class and youth, is hugely positive. This political energy and desire to change society must now be harnessed to fight for the only solution for workers in Scotland and the rest of Britain – for a socialist revolution in Britain and internationally!