The Referendum Legacy

Today TNS BMRB have published their first poll of voters in Scotland since the referendum. As well as giving us an insight into the relative popularity of the ways in which people actually got involved in the referendum campaign, it also provides some evidence on whether the referendum has left a legacy of potentially higher levels of public participation in Scottish politics and elections in future.

The data on what people did during the campaign serve as a sobering reminder of the continued limits of social media as compared with two much more old fashioned ways of getting involved in the campaign – talking to one’s fellow citizens and watching television. Echoing previous findings from before polling day, no less than 62% said they had talked about the referendum with friends and family, while almost as many (60%) claimed to have watched one of the TV debates. In addition 52% said that they had watched a special TV programme about the referendum. In contrast, just 11% said that they had contributed to an online discussion. Although this group slightly outnumbered those who said they had attended a public meeting (9%), the poll underlines the risks in assuming that what appears on Twitter and Facebook (as well as what is said in a draughty village hall) is necessarily representative of the broad swathe of public opinion.

Nevertheless, we perhaps would not be surprised if a campaign that got so many people talking about politics has left a legacy of making it more likely that people will participate in politics in future.  As many as 32% say that as a result of the referendum they are now more likely to get involved in future in debates about national or local issues, while only 12% say they are less likely to do so. Equally as many as 37% say they are now more likely to vote in future elections, while just 6% state that are less likely to make it to a polling station.

We might be inclined to take these self-reports with a pinch of salt, doubtful that such fine sentiments will necessarily be carried through into deeds. But as I have previously noted elsewhere, there is some reason to believe that the referendum has left a legacy of a greater willingness to vote at election times.

First of all, voters have recently been more likely to say that they would vote in a Scottish Parliament election than was the case at the equivalent stage during the last Holyrood electoral cycle. In Ipsos MORI’s polls conducted between February 2013 and August 2014 between 65% and 71% said that they were 10/10 certain to vote, with 69% doing so in their last reading in August. In contrast when Ipsos MORI asked the same question in September 2009 and February 2010 only between 54% and 58% said they were certain to vote.

Second, voters in Scotland are currently more likely than voters living south of the border to say they will vote in a Westminster election. In Britain wide polls conducted by ComRes, ICM and Ipsos MORI in August and September, on average 54% said they were 10/10 certain to vote. Amongst the Scottish respondents in those polls, in contrast, the equivalent figure was 64%.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the apparent enthusiasm for and interest in politics that has evidently been generated by the referendum campaign will last as long as the UK general election next May, let alone all the way through to the next Scottish Parliament election twelve months later. But, as the recent rise in party membership and especially that of the SNP also suggests,  the referendum has it seems left a legacy whereby our politicians do at least have an opportunity to persuade more of us to get to the polls.

In the meantime, today’s poll serves as a warning to the unionist parties that they still have to convince people that they really have their heart in delivering more powers to Holyrood. Far more people trust the SNP (37%) to deliver more powers to Scotland than trust Labour (15%), the Conservatives (8%,) and the Liberal Democrats (1%) combined. Much the same discrepancy arises when people are asked which politician they trust most to deliver more powers – though Gordon Brown stands head and shoulders above any other unionist politician. The SNP might have lost the referendum, but voters are evidently still inclined to put their faith in the party when it comes to who is most likely to deliver for Scotland.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.