Lessons we learnt in Scotland | Robin McAlpine

One of the many reasons why smaller states make sense is that people in different regions are different – different social attitude, different cultural assumptions and with different political contexts. But at the same time there are things which are consistent across all of humanity – for example ‘risk appetite’ and its relationship to the choices we make.

So a report published by the Scottish think tank Common Weal might not immediately appear to be of interest to a Basque audience, but it may prove useful. It shows some patterns of public attitudes to a campaign for independence which are almost certain to apply beyond Scotland. The information all comes from a recently-published report on the Demographics of Independence (updated from two previous reports with the latest available data as of summer 2021). So what does it tell us?

First, it is worth emphasising that this is based on publicly-available quantitative data on independence and so has very little qualitative to tell us (roughly, quantitative tells us ‘how many people think it?’ while qualitative suggests ‘why do they think it?’). Second, for the same reason this is not the kind of opinion poll that professional strategists use because these are commissioned for general readers and a strategist would commission based on a more granular analysis of the respondents. (To illustrate this last point, a poll as you would get in a newspaper will break down respondents by categories like age, sex, class and geographical location while a poll commissioned to inform strategy would be likely to include more information like income, employment sector, ‘risk appetite’, home ownership status and so on – it gives a much more rounded picture for trying to infer why respondents are responding in the way they are).

The headline figures you’ll broadly know, although we all forget trends. Basically support for independence stayed at its referendum levels for a couple of years, had a very brief spike in Brexit week but then fell well back to pre-referendum levels, briefly spiking when Boris Johnson wins a full term in government and only reaching a sustained increase over indyre levels for about a year during Covid and then quickly dropping back to pre-referendum levels again.

If we look at this and try to draw correlations we find that support for independence peaks whenever things are going badly at the UK level. This would be a dispiriting finding for the independence movement if true, suggesting we’ve had little impact on voting intentions on the basis of anything we do and that the polls ping around, up and down, based purely on the vagaries of what Boris Johnson and the Tories do at any given time.

But causation isn’t causality so let’s delve below the headline figures to some of the demographics to see if there is more we can find. Sadly, here too we find further evidence for the ‘passive movement’ thesis. When you look at the detail of how different groups are behaving the overriding conclusion is that there is simply not enough consistency of movement to be able to claim there is a clear, notable trend which can be traced across different groups. This implies that it isn’t arguments about independence which are causing volatility (if the movement was successfully persuading people you’d imagine the effects would be traced more consistently across different demographics with an upwards trend) but rather issues impacting on one specific group or another, or ‘events’. More than that, there are examples of different groups moving in different directions at the same time and then reversing backwards again (though the key peaks see greater numbers moving ‘together’).

And this isn’t a massive element in the overall picture – most people are pretty static in their support one way or another and it is a smaller volatile group which is shifting – something like five per cent of people back and forwards. There are some positive trends – perhaps the most positive of all is in relation to women where there is a more consistent pattern of gradual increase in support (it’s not actually gradually, it’s risen and fallen in fits and starts but each fall has generally been a little smaller than each rise). And if the picture for women overall is positive, the story for women under 34 is particularly strong. Broadly the same is true for anyone who is not born in Scotland – since indyref there is a fairly consistent rise in their support for independence (even if it remains a minority view for now).

But there is one group which seems to swing back and forth particularly prominently – and its the wealthier professional class. The categorisation ABC1 is the group where, when the UK does something badly, people switch to independence.

So is there a group which is most associated with the spike, a group that we might lazily say are causing the various periods of support? Yes and no. There are a number of groups which seem to be responding to the short-term ups and downs (just to a lesser degree). But there is one group which seems to swing back and forth particularly prominently – and its the wealthier professional class. The categorisation ABC1 is the group where, when the UK does something badly, people switch to independence. This is anything from mid-level administration to very senior professionals and managers (and the sheer scale of this group is exactly why strategists try to get more information to enable it to be broken down into more specific subelements).

What conclusion do we draw from this? Was the Growth Commission right – it’s the professional and manager class and the wealthy that will win independence for us? Well, it didn’t work if so because despite Boris Johnson and Brexit and all the rest, this group’s voting intention is pretty well back where it was in September 2014. This is a key lesson; this group (half the population remember) is not swinging towards us and staying there, it is swinging and swinging back again. And the reason for their swing seems to have little to do with independence as opposed to how they perceive the UK Government to be doing. It is a group which is particularly confident that it knows ‘what’s what’ but perhaps paradoxically is inconsistent. This is not entirely without precedent; this group contains what in the past used to be considered the Daily Mail-reading swing voter that New Labour targeted with such enthusiasm. But one of the lessons of New Labour was that this group is fickle and will abandon you with little notice. And while it is important again to caveat heavily that this data can support only so much analysis, it looks like it is at least as susceptible to anti-independence talking points as to any indy arguments. Can we really rely on this group?

So who else might we look at? There is one group which has moved away from supporting independence quite decisively but which used to be strongly in support – men aged between 35 and 55 and particularly if they voted Leave at Brexit. In fact the independence movement really has done much to repel Leave voters and fundamentally has not gained the consistent support of new Remain voters to counteract this. Is the movement interested in votes or only in certain kinds of votes? That is not purely a weighted question – few if any would say ‘well if white supremacy gains us votes…’ so almost everyone would accept that there are votes you just don’t court. But are men and Leave voters in that category? This is a sizeable proportion of Scotland’s population so even small shifts hit the cause hard and that accounts for most of why the baseline support for independence (filtering out the spikes) has been below 2014 levels for much of the period since mid-2016 (and is back there now). It seems cavalier to suggest this vote can be ignored and (for now at least) simply wrong to assume it is ‘bound’ to return.

The other group the independence movement (or at least its leaders) seem to have a blindspot about are people on low incomes. C2DEs (the other half of the social grade split) are now quite a few percentage points below the support they showed for independence in 2014. And if we’ve lost a worrying number of this group to No there is an even bigger risk of losing them to non-participation. Turnout matters, and where the Growth Commission approach has managed to do nothing to consolidate support among high income groups it is impossible to imagine that its austerity politics has done anything to motivate turnout from low-income households.

Big social groups like younger women, middle aged men, low income households and non-Scots-born people all appear susceptible to independence to degrees which would produce a substantial majority. It’s just that the independence message simply doesn’t seem to be reaching them.There are serious questions (particularly with some of these groups) about whether independence leaders are even trying.

Independence is simply not ‘winning itself’ – half a million people have died since 2014 who will mostly be older. ‘Demographic replacement theory’ (more conservative old people dying and more liberal young people replacing them) is largely a myth or every country would be moving to the left continuously. On the whole humans get more risk averse as they age and hence more small-c conservative so the logic doesn’t stack up. Not only is there no evidence we’re persuading people there’s pretty consistent evidence we’re not, that changes in voting patterns are mainly down to Boris Johnson. That is a big worry.

But the positive in all this is that it remains there to be won. Big social groups like younger women, middle aged men, low income households and non-Scots-born people all appear susceptible to independence to degrees which would produce a substantial majority. It’s just that the independence message simply doesn’t seem to be reaching them. There are serious questions (particularly with some of these groups) about whether independence leaders are even trying.

Politicians crowing about success and taking credit for upward swings which appear to have little to do with anything they are doing (but going quiet when, quite quickly, the pattern reverses) is of zero value to the cause of independence. It may sound stupid to state this but unless we try to persuade people that independence is a good idea there seems little prospect of winning.

So are there lessons from this for the Basque Country? Perhaps the most important is that no matter where the debate is, if you’re not engaging with people and examining and addressing their views and concerns their opinions may change – but the chances are that they will change randomly on the basis of events outside your control.

Another is that a campaign which is too fully associated with a single political party is likely to result in support rising and falling according to the success or failure of that party (or parties). And finally, pursuing independence is, inevitably, an unknown and so unavoidably a risk. Humans don’t like risk; we are ‘hard-wired’ to avoid it. So taking people’s fears seriously and reassuring them on detail is essential.

It is highly likely that these lessons are as true for the Basque Country as for Scotland.

Robin Lindsay McAlpine is a Scottish campaigner who was the Director of the Common Weal think tank from 2014 to 2021. He has previously worked as a journalist, and was the first director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

Scotland, the Demographics of Independence

We accompany the English, Basque and Spanish edition of this relevant work, which has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Common Weal, which has allowed TMeLab to translate and publish this work.

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