A book by a team of political academics aims to dispel “myths” about the 2014 independence referendum, including the importance of “The Vow” in its outcome.
In-depth analysis carried out by the Scottish Election Study (SES) team also challenges widely held assumptions about the effect of the referendum on political engagement.
The team looked at polling, election and survey data in the years around the referendum, comprehensively documenting how voting behaviour and social attitudes shifted.
Their book, The Referendum That Changed a Nation, looks at how the political landscape changed up to 2019, including discussion of the Brexit referendum.
The Vow was printed on the front page of the Daily Record newspaper shortly before the September 18 2014 vote – containing a signed pledge from leaders of the pro-union parties to give Holyrood more powers.
Despite being credited as helping the No campaign cross the line with 55% of the vote, the SES academics said the polling data did not point to any significant impact from the Vow.
At a book launch at Edinburgh University this week, lead author Professor Ailsa Henderson said their study strongly disputed that “the Vow swung it for No”.
Looking at opinion poll data, the book states that the Vow did not lead to any dip in support for Yes.
In survey responses of those who switched from Yes to No, only a tiny number of who mentioned the promise of more powers as their reason for doing so.
The book describes the 2014 referendum as a political “earthquake”, which immediately led to a dramatic shift in party support.
It says: “Yes and No were much more than options on the ballot; they became rival camps and powerful identities.
“Polarisation is a common consequence of such ideas: those on each side are not just united by their common cause but become increasingly hostile to and distant from the other side, making the boundary a harder one to cross — both socially and politically.”
Prof Henderson also discussed the perception that the lengthy campaign period ahead of the referendum energised and increased political engagement in Scotland.
While there is some evidence of increased formal participation in politics, such as the rise in SNP membership, levels of political interest had largely returned to normal in 2015.
The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which tracked specific activities around political engagement between 2009 and 2019, showed hardly any change in those who attended public meetings or contacted their MSPs.
The book states: “Those activities requiring greater engagement and, in particular, any that would actually involve leaving one’s home, saw negligible change.
“If we compare these fairly static figures of actual involvement with the anticipated change to participation habits, what we see then, is the slow taking hold of a myth about the referendum’s transformative potential, rather than an actual change in formal or informal modes of participation.”
Professor Rob Johns, one of the book’s co-authors, also spoke about the SNP’s current troubles during the event at Edinburgh University.
He said there is “virtually no evidence” of previous dips in support for the SNP impacting support for independence.
Support for the SNP is largely kept afloat by support for Scottish independence, he said, indicating that the current scandals may have limited impact on the party’s long-term standing.
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