It has been interesting times living here in Scotland over the last months, as a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country was held on 18th September 2014 (see e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/events/scotland-decides). The referendum dominated news media within Scotland for months, and became a major national and international story in its last two weeks, as opinion polls suggested a tight contest. In the event, the opposition to independence won by a fair margin (55% to 45%), as they had long been predicted to.
An emergent picture from voting patterns seems to be of quite dramatic socio-economic differences in the profiles of voters – it seems that opponents to independence were much more likely to be relatively advantaged in the stratification structure (I am basing this on speculation and regional patterns, not upon reliable microdata at this stage). The secure, affluent and educated seem to have mostly voted ‘no’; the precarious, deprived, criminalised and uncredentialised seem mostly to have voted ‘yes’. There also seem to be other important dimensions to voting patterns, including of religion, region, nationality and ethnicity, but the stratification dimension seems to have been a substantial factor.
In my opinion – and again, I don’t have data to back this up, just speculation – there was a major disparity between the public agenda of discussion over voting preferences, and the reasons used by individuals to make their choices. The public debate was overwhelmingly addressed towards socio-economic issues and questions of political power: which model, Scotland as part of the UK or as an independent country, would deliver the better prospects economically to different groups of people, and under which model would power be more effectively administered? Ironically, the dominant politicians from both sides of the debate said that they were motivated by much the same objectives in these domains (broadly equating in socio-economic terms to improved standards of living and reductions in social inequality, and in political terms to more political administration within Scotland). For this reason, the socio-economic and political debates turned in practice more upon which of the two models was felt to have a better chance of delivering such objectives, rather than on differences in underlying priorities. Still, whilst both issues are important, and I’m sure influenced plenty of people in their voting preferences, I believe that a different, cultural factor was really behind the voting choices of even more individuals. I think that many Scots evaluated what amounted to their image of the cultural landscape of Scotland under independence or as part of the UK, and chose accordingly. Indeed I think both political campaigns prior to the vote missed a trick in not paying more attention to this.
Why might this claim be tenable? First, analyses of long-term social trends that we conducted in our ‘Is Britain Pulling Apart’ project suggest that socio-economic social circumstances are very slow to change and haven’t changed much over many years. Extrapolating forward, it might be hypothesised that the socio-economic impact of independence compared to membership of the UK for Scotland would in all probability be minimal. Of course, there is a risk of unpredictable shocks associated with constitutional change (a worry that surely swayed some voters against independence), but by and large I suspect that most people intuitively recognise that we have had long term socio-economic stability, and that it is likely to last long term in the future. I have less expertise on whether similar stability might be associated with the administration of political power, but again my intuition is that, recognising the global political landscape, importance of the EU, and the common foundations of values and systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK, the extent to which Scots voting in the referendum really believed that a major change in the workings of political structures would arise dependent on the outcome was probably exaggerated. By contrast, I would argue that the ‘cultural landscape,’ is much more visible to more people, and much more widely believed to be susceptible to short term social change (through mechanisms such as the withdrawal of the BBC from Scotland; changes in compositions of shops and businesses, leisure companies, sporting arrangements; transformations of the educational curriculum; etc).
Second, the connection between long-term socio-economic structure and social distance patterns, as is highlighted in our project, emphasises how different cultural preferences characterise social groups in different long-term positions in the stratification structure. ‘Middle-class’ individuals, for example, go through very different objective socio-economic conditions as they move in and out of different life-course circumstances, but they retain more or less the same cultural orientation throughout their lives, as is evident, for instance, in their social distance patterns. So, the fact that the vote in the Scottish referendum is (or rather, seems to be) substantially stratified by socio-economic circumstance is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that cultural values were a dominant force driving voting preferences. On the contrary, it is actually more compatible with quite a strong split in voting preferences by socio-economic characteristics (that seems to have occurred), than is a model where the split is based on differences in views about social equality or about political power (both of which do not coincide as neatly with socio-economic circumstances).
So, more attention to (beliefs about) cultural preferences might be needed if we want to understand voting preferences on the referendum. It is possible that many privileged Scots baulked at the prospect of a culturally more ‘Scottish’ Scotland, the oft-parodied perception of a parochial wasteland of fried pizza, Irn Bru, Robert Burns and Celtic v’s Motherwell. Scots from less affluent circumstances may have been less put off by such images, and indeed were probably attracted to their anticipation of different aspects to the cultural landscape of an independent Scotland – featuring less of the London media, less English cricket, less David Mitchell, and no more Eastenders.
At first sight one hole in this reasoning might be in the public support for Scottish Independence expressed by many people from one very privileged group, the existing cultural elites or ‘creative sector’ within Scotland. Much publicity was given to the high levels of support for independence from many prominent painters, poets, writers and actors within Scotland. These should seem to be exactly the sort of group that would value the stereotypes of Bloomsbury rather than Bernistoun. However, there are some plausible caveats. First, those creatives located in Scotland probably don’t accept the disparaging portrayals of a Scottish culture referred to above (whilst they would also probably have a few things to look forward to from being key players in the cultural realm of a newly independent Scotland). Second, every expression of support for independence made by this group that I witnessed was presented on socio-economic terms rather than cultural issues, being almost universal in the position that greater social equality and progressivism was possible in an independent Scotland. Oddly then, in the recent referendum, it seems that the culturalists tended to vote on socio-economic grounds, but that the voting choices of those for whom socio-economic circumstances matter relatively more, might substantially have been on issues of perceived cultural landscape.