Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Will Scotland’s summer of sport affect the referendum?

Cyclist Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Commonwealth Games have seen a sporting extravaganza including cycling

The finishing line in the race for medals at Glasgow's "friendly games" is now in sight.

On Sunday, competitors and spectators will descend on Hampden, the venue for athletics, at the twentieth Commonwealth Games, to see the closing ceremony.

And political leaders will also be there enjoying the spectacle which ends the 11-day event.

Many will ask the question - will the Games have an effect on the Scottish independence referendum taking place on 18 September?

Some politicians believe that the passions which major sporting events evoke could potentially be harnessed for political campaigns.

But is that really true?

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Image caption All smiles - PM David Cameron, with wife Samantha, and FM Alex Salmond with wife Moira
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Seated apart - the two leaders at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games

Gerry Hassan, research fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland, said he believed Glasgow 2014 would benefit the "Yes" campaign.

He told the BBC Scotland documentary The Games People Play: "Of course the Commonwealth Games will have an effect on the independence referendum.

"It couldn't be otherwise.

"And part of the independence argument is an argument about: can Scots feel they have the confidence to do this? Do they feel they have the optimism?

"That's clearly not been won so far.

"So the Commonwealth Games could just be a part of Scotland feeling: 'Yes we can, yes we have the optimism to do it'."


  • A referendum on whether Scotland should become independent is to take place
  • People resident in Scotland will be able to vote by answering the "yes/no" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
  • The referendum will take place on Thursday 18 September, 2014
  • Go to the BBC's Scotland Decides page for analysis, background and explainers on the independence debate.

However, Prof Hugh O'Donnell of Glasgow Caledonian University, who has written extensively on sport and popular culture, said it was "very difficult to find first-hand evidence" of a connection between sporting and political success or failure.

He said: "I can't think of a single case where it has really made a difference."

Prof O'Donnell argues that most people do not "live in their nations full time" - they live in their local areas, their homes, families, and workplaces.

He explained: "There are only key moments when we relocate to the nation, and sport is quite useful for that.

"Then life takes over. They've got to keep their job, feed their weans.

"In the main, people are quite good at keeping these things separate."

Political fortunes

However, some sporting events have been credited for turning political fortunes.

It's said that Labour prime minister Harold Wilson's victory in the 1966 General Election was linked to England's winning performance at that year's World Cup.

But if you look at the calendar of that year, you'll find that can't be true because the two events happened in the wrong order - the election took place in March and the World Cup in July.

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Image caption Did England's World Cup performances have any impact on Harold Wilson's political fortunes?
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Image caption Edward Heath with his 1970 Conservative Party manifesto. Did England's failure at that year's World Cup help the Tories in the election?

In 1970, England were defeated by Germany in the World Cup quarter finals just four days before Edward Heath's Conservatives confounded the pollsters of the day and defeated Labour.

So did England's defeat sour the mood and did voters take it out on the government of the day?

David Cowling, editor of the BBC Political Research Unit, said the economy was a much more likely reason for Labour's woes in 1970.

Poor figures for the UK's balance of payments - essentially the country's assets and liabilities - were published before the election and arguably did more damage to Labour's campaign than the football.

Mayoral election

London's Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, was elected for a second term in May 2012, before the Olympics of that year had begun, but his association with the event led to speculation that his star was on the rise and that he was even headed for Downing Street.

However, Cowling questioned any benefit from the Olympics for the Conservative Party, either locally or nationally.

He explained: "If you look at the polling, what is extraordinary is that London was a Labour city."

Londoners favoured Labour over the Conservatives for Westminster and local elections, yet Mr Johnson came out ahead in the mayoral elections.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Labour's Ken Livingstone was mayor when London was bidding for the 2012 Olympics
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Image caption Conservative Boris Johnson, doing the Mo Farah "mobot", was London mayor during the 2012 Olympics

Labour rival Ken Livingstone also had a strong association with the Olympics - he was mayor when London secured the Games in 2005 but that success did not prevent his defeat by Mr Johnson three years later.

During the 2012 mayoral election campaign the Olympics mainly came into play in terms of the "legacy", with candidates emphasising the benefit to the economy, housing and infrastructure of east London in particular.

Mr Johnson's manifesto said he would "ensure a true Olympic legacy - 11,000 new homes and 10,000 new jobs".

Back in 2008 Mr Livingstone said: "I didn't bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it's the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the government to develop the East End."

Games bounce?

In 2014, it was announced that Glasgow would benefit from £1bn in funding from the Scottish and UK governments and both Alex Salmond and David Cameron were keen to emphasise the economic legacy of the Games for Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Will Scotland or the UK feel that they have benefitted as much as Glasgow?

Cowling commented: "When people elsewhere in the UK were asked whether they would get benefits of the London Olympics many said no, but they still enjoyed the Games."

A feel-good factor and a sense of confidence sparked by the Commonwealth Games may endure but if "life takes over", in Prof O'Donnell's words, it is far from clear whether Scotland's summer of sport will have any influence on voters by September.

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