The “where were you when you heard JFK had been shot?” moment in recent Scottish politics came on September 6, 2014. It was then, 12 days before the nation made its decision on independence, that YouGov produced a poll putting the Yes campaign ahead for the first time.
The lead was slender, just 51-49, but it’s hard to overstate the trauma it caused Unionists. Until then, few of us had taken seriously the idea that the nation might actually vote the UK out of existence. The Yessers had spent months dancing and chanting and painting saltires on their cheeks in Glasgow’s George Square – which they renamed “Freedom Square” – and Alex Salmond had belligerently insisted it was going to happen in that dead-eyed Kray Twin way of his, but it all seemed rooted in wishful thinking, a confidence trick – they would say that, wouldn’t they?
The science and the facts were on our side. We hadn’t felt the need to make a psychological accommodation with the possibility.
That poll changed everything. We had, in effect, been given a week and a half’s notice that our country could be taken away from us. Despite the empty platitudes and dodgy statistics that had poured from the mouths of SNP politicians throughout the campaign, the very obvious economic, cultural and diplomatic shocks that would follow, the lack of a credible plan for the aftermath, it might be on. Many English readers will have found the decision to leave the EU and its aftermath tough going – for Scottish Unionists, a Yes vote would have been like a hurricane to Brexit’s stiff breeze.
By the time September 18 rolled around we had all calmed down a bit. The polls showed the the Union would almost certainly prevail. But that stout certainty had gone, and in truth it has never returned. I suspect it never will. The existence of the UK feels contingent, its ties transactional rather than emotional, our identity an ongoing negotiation. The independence debate refuses to die, while the separatists continue to dominate civic life and gnaw away at the bonds. Who knows how this ends, but many No voters will admit privately that they’ve made the necessary psychological accommodation. I know I certainly have: the world wouldn’t end, the sun would still come up, we’d manage.
As the newly published British Election Study (BES) shows, those two big referendums on the UK’s future arrangements, those big calls on who we are and whether we should stay or go, have remade the electoral weather. In Scotland, their outcomes have interacted with one another, as if in some constitutional petri dish, rewiring the electorate’s thought patterns, rerouting their voting habits and upsetting traditional allegiances.
In an article, BES team members Chris Prosser and Ed Fieldhouse say: “In the space of three general elections [between 2010 and 2017], the Scottish party system has been completely transformed. The SNP moved from third place to first… Labour has fallen from first to third, and the Conservatives have risen from fourth to second. The last few years of Scottish politics have a clear tale to tell: referendums that cut across party lines can lead to major disturbances in the party system.”
The study finds that among those who voted Yes to independence and to Remain in the EU, nine out of 10 backed the SNP in June’s general election. But among those who voted Yes and then Leave, four in 10 who had voted SNP in the 2015 election switched to another party in 2017.
No/Remain voters had predominantly backed Labour in 2015 but in June around one in five of them switched to the Tories. Ruth Davidson’s more liberal Conservatism and her staunch support for the Union also attracted around a third of 2015 Liberal Democrat voters. Among No/Leave voters, Davidson’s party scooped up around half of Labour’s 2015 support, 60% of Liberal Democrats and most Ukip supporters.
As Prosser and Fieldhouse write: ‘It is not hard to see how the referendums on Scottish independence and the UK’s membership of the EU have been the catalyst for these changes.’
It’s also not hard to see the fragility of these new voter coalitions. Davidson’s charisma and nous might hold the resurgent Tory vote together for a while, but can she really please Yes and No and Leave and Remain supporters for long? As the prospect of a second indyref seems to recede, will Yes voters who abandoned the Nats in June give up on their dream of a separate Scottish state? If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour continues its momentum, why wouldn’t Kezia Dugdale benefit from the shift in the public mood? If the consequences of Brexit bite, can the Scottish Tories hope to escape public ire?
In short, nothing has been resolved and those “major disturbances” will play out for a long time to come. The summer break has been a useful pause for the party leaders and their teams, allowing them to gain some perspective, gather their thoughts and plan their tactics for when recess ends in September. But the complexity of the times means they will be playing multi-dimensional chess. It would be nice to think that we will spend the autumn having a serious debate about reforms to Scotland’s struggling schools and how to inject greater dynamism into our economy. Sadly, it’s more likely that, like a migraine, independence and Brexit will continue to dominate.