The lessons of failure

What progressives can learn from the Scottish referendum

This week saw Scottish voters reject independence, but we can learn more from the results than simply that they want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. In particular, from how many people voted and from the reasons why people voted yes, those interested in progressive politics can take heart and learn lessons that may help in next year’s federal and provincial elections.

The headlines are clear. Scots voted 55-45 in favour of staying in the United Kingdom. The majority and the question were unambiguous. Only 45 per cent of Scots agreed that “Scotland should become an independent country.” The other 55 per cent said it should not.

But there are two key features of this story that have lessons for Canadians. The first is turnout. A higher proportion of eligible voters – roughly 85 per cent – cast ballots in this referendum. That’s a higher turnout than in any election in the UK since the Second World War.

Canadians have only ever seen that kind of turnout twice – in the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referenda. The last time there was a referendum in Newfoundland and Labrador that had 85 per cent turnout was 1948. All of these were about the future of the country/ies. And all of them were close.

To my mind, this reinforces the belief that there are two key factors in people showing up to vote. The first is that the vote is about something important to them. It would make little sense for a referendum on changing the name of a street to get a lot of votes, since that only affects a few people. But when something matters deeply – like which country you want to be a part of – that gets bums out of seats and into line to vote.

The second is that the vote has to be close. People in Newfoundland cared about the denominational education system, but only 52 per cent of us voted to get rid of it because it was a foregone conclusion that it would pass. When the vote is close, people are more likely to vote, because they believe their vote matters more than when the results seem obvious beforehand.

The lesson for this is to make politics exciting by making sure people believe that the race will be competitive and that it will actually affect their lives. All of which is fairly intuitive, but it is always helpful when our intuitions are borne out in the evidence.

People voting yes in these areas were not simply voting to leave the UK, but to leave behind England’s conservative establishment.

Another feature of the Scottish referendum is to note the parts of the country that voted yes, and the reasons why they did. There are only a few areas, but they are among the most economically disadvantaged in the whole of Scotland. In those areas, those who voted yes did not necessarily do so simply because of a love of Scotland or a distaste of England, but because they believe themselves to have been let down by 40 years of neo-liberal governments in Westminster.

People voting yes in these areas were not simply voting to leave the UK, but to leave behind England’s conservative establishment. This was a vote against the status quo of New Labour and the Conservatives, both Thatcherite and Cameron’s Thatcher-lite. This was a vote for progress by any means necessary, even if that means breaking the country in two.

The lesson of this, then, is that there is a taste for progressive values, in Scotland at least, and that tapping into this desire for a more just society is a way of increasing voter turnout. So even in defeat, there is some hope here for those on the left. If they can find a way of convincing the disillusioned that a vote for the NDP isn’t simply politics as usual, they may find themselves with more votes than initially expected.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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