The Scottish referendum was no triumph of democracy

The Scottish referendum has been declared a triumph of democracy. Fully 85% of the population voted either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to independence on Thursday. No matter who lost, the people won, said the TV pundits, as it was the people who had spoken and the politicians who had to listen when the sun rose on Friday morning.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. The measure of democracy’s success should not be reduced to simplistic reflections on voter turnout. After all, turnout was higher in wealthier areas and lower in poorer. Democracy should engage all people, regardless of socioeconomic status.

While decisions may be made by those who turn up, informed decisions are made only by those who engage fully with the democratic process, intelligently weigh up all the variables involved in the choice presented to them, and vote accordingly. In the words of Isaac Asimov, it is a “false notion” that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

Is this what happened on Thursday? Did Scots go to the polls with a strong understanding of what the likely outcomes would be if their choice prevailed? And did the efforts of the rival campaigns serve to educate the electorate or sow confusion? The data is still rolling in and a clear picture of how and why Scotland voted ‘No’ is still some way off. Sketchy early indications from Lord Ashcroft’s poll, however, suggest that the choices of a significant percentage of both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voters were informed by nebulous concepts of belonging and nationhood rather than by the material outcomes projected by the two campaigns.

For example, 70% of ‘Yes’ voters said they did so because of the principle that “all decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland”, and 27% of ‘No’ voters because of “a strong attachment to the UK and its shared history, culture and traditions”.

This is not to say that these are not valid reasons for voting one way or the other. The findings do, though, suggest many people in both camps voted with their heart first and head second. Perhaps this explains the unsavoury outbursts of both Scottish and British nationalism witnessed in the closing stages of the referendum campaign. In the absence of knowledge, some turned to the blind guide of national identity to make their choice for them.

Polling earlier in the campaign suggested a knowledge vacuum among undecided voters. A survey published in July commissioned by the Hunter Foundation showed 56% of undecideds did not feel they had enough impartial information to make a decision. Worryingly for the politicians involved in both campaigns, the same poll revealed 45% of all voters did not trust either the Scottish or Westminster governments’ predictions as to what would happen to Scotland following the referendum.

These findings reinforced data gathered by polling company Survation in April, which showed 62% of undecideds felt they did not have adequate information to make an informed decision. Interestingly, the same poll showed over one in four ‘No’ voters felt insufficiently informed too. Survation also revealed that 39% of all voters in April thought neither campaign was providing trustworthy information to the electorate.

Naturally, these percentages do not capture the strenuous efforts by each camp to hammer home their key facts and figures in the final days of the campaign. Nor is it fair to say politicians did not do enough to try and educate the population. Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland, said in August that there had been 140,000 orders for ‘Scotland’s Future’, the Scottish government's guide to an independent Scotland, while the UK government sent out 2.5 million leaflets outlining the five main benefits of staying in the UK that same month.

Ashcroft’s poll following the referendum also revealed when voters made their minds up on which way they would cast their ballot. Fully 8% of Yes voters and 3% of No voters decided on referendum day, with a further 7% and 3% respectively making their choice in the week prior. These findings are hard to interpret. On the one hand, those who waited till late in the campaign to make a decision may have done so in order to receive the maximum amount of information. On the other, they could have been swayed by the heat and noise of the rival campaigns in the finals days, or been motivated by pre-existing sympathies that crystallised when they entered the polling booth. Conversely, those who said they always knew how they would vote – 38% for ‘Yes’ voters and 62% for ‘No’ voters – could have either ignored relevant information that challenged their convictions or weighed up the evidence as it mounted up only to find it did not change their initial perspective.

Future surveys should be conducted to build a clearer picture of just how important different sources of information on a post-independent Scotland were to voters’ decision-making. However, to mistake mass participation in a referendum with a well-informed, politically engaged electorate is a danger we would all do well to avoid. Otherwise we risk confusing populism and nationalism for democracy.


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