Scottish independence: Can anything be learnt from the Scotland debate?

Two women outside a polling station in Glasgow, 2009 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Could Scotland show the rest of the UK the way to vote?

On 18 September at least three in four voters in Scotland are expected to go to the ballot box - the highest turnout in any UK election or referendum for 20 years. Are there any wider lessons?

Even 75% could be "a conservative estimate" according to Strathclyde University's Prof John Curtice. Recent polling suggests it could be as high as 91%.

In some ways it's not surprising, given the uniqueness of the referendum and its national importance. But the predictions dwarf other numbers on UK participation in comparable decisions.

There have been four Scottish Parliament elections since it opened anew in 1999. None of these has attracted turnout over 58%.

Turnout at the 2010 general election was 65%, an increase on 2005 but still the third lowest since 1945.

Over 4.2m people have registered to vote, around 97% of the eligible population and "the largest electorate ever in Scotland" according to Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly.

'The missing million'

The Electoral Commission says 152,730 registration forms were downloaded from its website - over three times as many as were downloaded by Scots during the entire 2010 general election campaign. However access to the internet has increased in those four years.

The newly awakened voters even have a nickname - "the missing million".

The debate is visible everywhere. Walk down any street in Glasgow or even wandering in tiny hilltop villages in the Borders, you are likely to see stickers on lampposts, billboards erected in fields, and posters in windows noisily urging "Yes" or "No".

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Image caption Dundee
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Image caption Birnam, Perthshire
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Image caption Faslane
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Image caption Govan, Glasgow

The tone of the debate has not always been seen as positive. Online exchanges have led each side to accuse the other of cyber-bullying and, on occasion, legal action.

The level of engagement the referendum attracts is striking.

Polling by ICM for Scotland on Sunday found 65% of Scots say they have had "lots of conversations with family and friends" about the referendum, compared with 29% who have not. Seventy-one per cent believe people are more interested in independence than they ever are in what parties say.

Nearly three quarters of Scots have taken part in at least one referendum-related activity - from watching relevant TV programmes to reading the White Paper, according to one TNS poll.

This picture is very different to the one the UK has become used to.

Matthew Korris, a senior researcher for the Hansard Society, says its annual audit of engagement in UK politics has recorded a steady trend of declining party membership and declining political interest and knowledge over the past 11 years.

He puts the number of people in the UK who participate in political activities apart from voting - such as donating money to a campaign or signing a petition - at "under 20%".

Scots are not immune from disengagement: a YouGov survey in August found 53% thought the campaign has gone on for too long and 46% said they thought it was boring.

"The irony is that parties and MPs are trying harder than ever, in more varied ways, to engage with voters but the negativity that surrounds politics is pervasive," Korris says.

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Image caption Results of the 1975 referendum on the European Economic Community, which attracted 64% of voters.

How will turnout measure up?

A selection of high turnout figures of the past 20 years:

  • 1997 general election - 71%
  • 2004 European Parliament election - 39%
  • 1999 Scottish Parliament elections - 58%

Turnout in recent referendums:

  • 1975 referendum on UK membership on the European Economic Community - 64%
  • 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution - 63%
  • 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution - 60%
  • 2011 referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system - 42%

Source: House of Commons Library

Why do so many people feel disconnected from politics and how has the referendum disrupted that pattern?

Korris says one of the most common reasons people give for not voting in elections is "my vote won't make a difference" - because they live in a safe seat or because they feel "the parties are all the same".

Those factors are just not at play in the Scottish referendum.

With the referendum lately described as "too close to call", people think that in this instance their vote really does count.

There is also "a certain attractiveness" to the fact it is a Yes/No question rather than a choice between a raft of parties, according to Prof Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University.

"It's a deceptively simple way to ask people what they think of a massive range of complicated issues."

Another thing that may encourage voters is that the referendum is not a party political issue.

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Image caption Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont is prominent in the "No" campaign, but it's not just a Labour issue...
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Image caption ... And Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's SNP is not the only campaign group behind independence.

Parties are heavily involved in the campaign but Yes/No does not split along traditional party lines. The Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties are in the "No" camp. The SNP and Green parties are in the "Yes" camp, and there are campaigners of no party affiliation on both sides.

Then there is the fact it is a question of national identity.

"This goes to the heart of who Scots think they are and who they want to be, something people feel pretty intensely," says Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank focusing on identity and integration.

"It's also about the nature of referendums, which have the benefit of people feeling that they 'own' the outcome. Even the side that loses feels as though they've had the opportunity to make their case."

Other referendums haven't inspired such high engagement levels. The AV referendum - a poll on whether to change the UK voting system in 2011 - only got 42% of people out of the house, but Katwala says "that was about how we elect governments - it mainly appealed to people who were already into politics".

'Lightning rod'

Prof Flinders points out turnout is also affected by whether a poll is deemed "important", with local elections sometimes seen as less pressing and attracting fewer voters.

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Image caption 73% of Scots have taken part in referendum-related activities, one poll suggests.
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Image caption In other UK-wide surveys, the number of voters taking part in political activities has been put at under 20%.

"What you have [with the Scottish referendum] is a lightning rod for a whole number of things about which people feel passionately coming together - frustrations with the economy, with foreign policy, with the way politics is done."

This rare convergence of factors makes it "difficult" to extract wider lessons for the UK, he says, "but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try".

In particular, he thinks politicians will be keen to learn lessons from how the Yes Scotland campaign galvanised supporters.

David Torrance, a Herald columnist, argues a new method used by both sides has been the mobilisation of "campaigning groups such as artists for Yes or academics for No".

He says these activists have been cultivated because of their ability to "get the message out" to specific audiences.

Summarising the lessons for other campaigns, such as the 2015 general election, he says it demonstrates "the importance of framing, and of combining a formidable grassroots operation with online activity and very targeted messaging".

The behaviour of 16- and 17-year-olds voting for the first time will also be watched closely, according to Prof Flinders.

He predicts: "If they defy expectations by coming out to vote in big numbers, and if they split pretty evenly between Yes and No, it could certainly reinvigorate the case for giving them the vote in all elections."

He believes the referendum could "open the lid" on a new era of interest in constitutional questions - especially revived calls for English devolution and the potential referendum on EU membership.

"Everything that has been written pronouncing the death of popular politics in this country has just been proved wrong," he says.