International Society of Political Psychology


Political Psychology and the Scottish Referendum

Posted by Shelley_McKeown •

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St. Andrews, discusses the political psychology of the Scottish referendum.

It was the best if times, it was the worst of times... Certainly, whether you supported independence or not, the period of the referendum was an extraordinary time, a thrilling time, a time when we relished the eyes of the world being upon us. Suddenly, talking about politics was no longer the mark of a nerd. Ordinary people would discuss independence in the street, with strangers, at the water-cooler. And while some harsh words were spoken, and one politician was hit by an egg, by and large the debate was conducted with civility. It was the nearest thing to a 'national conversation' we had ever experienced. When the results were finally announced, the Russian Federation (keen to bite back over criticism of their role in the Ukraine) denounced the turnout figures as almost 'North Korean'. Overall, 85% of people had voted, over 90% in many areas. For most of us, irrespective of how we had voted, those figures were not a cause for concern. To the contrary, they were a victory in themselves.

But, as a social psychologist, that pleasure was tinged with frustration. There was, of course, an avalanche of commentary around the referendum. Psephologists, political scientists, sociologists all spoke with great regularity and considerable insight. But when the media turned to psychologists it was generally for light entertainment, to deal with the fripperies of the vote rather than the core issues. We were fated to fill the light-hearted 'and finally' item of the news designed to alleviate the foregoing fare of war, famine, pestilence and politics. So, for instance, I and other colleagues were approached on various occasions to talk about how the referendum fuelled family arguments, about the role of sporting success on voting and suchlike things. The clear assumption was that psychology is limited to explaining individual phenomena but has little relevance to societal realities.

At one point I exploded. I can't quite recall what the journalist had asked me, but I do recall that it was something relentlessly trivial. So I wrote back a long rant about how the core issues of the referendum were bound up with psychological issues and she should be asking about those. To her credit, she allowed me to write my rant as copy and it was published. After all, much of the time, journalists don't mind what you say as long as you say something mildly interesting. So one can substitute their questions with ones own. Well, sometimes.

When it comes to what those issues were, one can point to at least three (mainly because the world can always be divided in a three part list, and, as we shall see soon, if you do have more points, simply sub-divide the third).

Core issues

First, we were confronted with a classic case of decision making under uncertainty. We couldn't know the consequences of independence until after the vote, not only because of the inherent unpredictability of the future, but also because the vote was a mandate to start negotiations about the break up of Britain without knowing the results of that negotiation (on core issues like the national debt, the currency and so on). So how the uncertainty was framed was clearly of critical importance.

In the first debate between Alex Salmond, and Alistair Darling - respectively, the leaders of the 'Yes' (pro-independence) and 'No' (anti-independence) campaigns - the latter gained an advantage by raising unanswered questions about short-term economic uncertainties. Notably he highlighted questions over the currency of an independent country.. Salmond tried to move the debate on to the long term advantages of independence. But he was, effectively, asking people to risk a probable loss in order to achieve a possible gain. As we know from Kahneman's Prospect theory, that is not an attractive proposition.

By the time of the second debate, the 'Yes' leader had fundamentally reframed the argument. His focus shifted to the short term risks of not achieving independence: increased austerity, threats to the National Health Service (not simply a practical resource, but the symbol of a socialised culture), exit from Europe after a UK wide referendum. In this context, the longer term uncertainties of independence became a risk taken to avoid a likely loss - a far more attractive proposition. After this the Yes vote rose dramatically in the polls, at one point seeming to be in the majority. It was this which led the British establishment to promise things they had previously ruled out (so-called 'devo max', that is dramatically increased power for the devolved Scottish Parliament) in order to keep the Union.

Moving on to the second issue, the campaign involved such an overload of information, much of it mutually contradictory (North sea oil is running out/there is much more oil in the North sea; Scotland contributes mote than its share in tax/Scotland receives more than its due in spending) that the nature of the source became a critical issue. Who did one trust - if anyone? Did one reject everything as coming from a political class who are one step down from snake-oil salesmen? Or did one make distinctions between politicians as to which ones were more concerned with our welfare than with their own power? Who was acting for us and who was acting for themselves (or, even worse, for alien interests)?

This takes us to the third psychological issue related to the referendum, perhaps the most obvious issue, the issue of identity. The problem here is that, often, the wrong questions are asked about identity leading to the wrong answers. To be more precise, people have looked for simplistic links between Scottish identity and support for independence and, in failing to find them, have concluded that there is no such link. But the fact that identity works in complex ways does not make it any the less relevant.

So, there is, at best, a weak relationship between strength of Scottish identification and support for independence. Equally, it is wrong to argue that those who identify strongly are xenophobic, English hating and insular. To the contrary, the evidence shows that those who supported independence were more internationalist, more favourable to Europe and better disposed towards immigrants. Indeed, if there were any signs of old fashioned triumphalist nationalist they came from those in the 'No' campaign who wished to preserve Britain as a world power with an interventionist army and a seat on the Security Council.

But if strength of identity is a poor predictor of independence, content of identity is a different matter. The achievement of the Scottish National Party has been, probably for the first time in the UK, successfully to implement a civic understanding of nationalism, in which being Scottish is a matter of commitment rather than blood and which promotes values that are broadly inclusive and compassionate (hence the link of independence to internationalism). Equally, support for independence is linked to a commitment to these values and a sense that they cannot be implemented as long as Scotland is a minority in Great Britain.

But, in acknowledging the positives, it is equally important not to romanticise the SNP. Another way in which identity related to the independence debate was through the categorisation of the various actors in the debate. This returns us to the issue of trust, because such categorisation serves as a way of defining who or what an actor is speaking for. This, the leadership of the 'Yes' campaign implied that those ranged against them were not properly Scottish and not speaking for the Scottish interest.

Thus, when the leaders of the UK parties made a last minute dash up North to assert their commitment to Scotland in the UK, Alex Salmond famously declared: "Today what we have got is an example of Team Scotland against Team Westminster. The breadth and reach of the 'Yes' campaign is there for all to see - it is not about the Scottish National Party, the Green Party or political parties. It goes right through the whole sector of Scottish society. What we are seeing today on the other side is Team Westminster jetting up to Scotland for the day because they are panicking in the campaign". More perniciously, it was implied that anyone who was against independence was not fully Scottish - a suggestion taken up by the internet trolls who condemned Scottish born supporters of the Union (such as JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame) as 'traitors'. In such moments, a civic definition of nationalism slipped dangerously close to a totalising form of politics wherein dissent leads to exclusion.

A final point about identity

There is one final point to be made about identity and the referendum. That is, it is generally assumed that if anything was of relevance to the vote, it was Scottish identity (and if Scottishness was of little or no relevance then identity was of little of no relevance). But this assumption is flawed. Perhaps the most critical psephological question in the campaign was which way would left-leaning, traditionally Labour supporting working class voters go? Labour (which was pro-Unionist) certainly tried to make this an issue of class solidarity with working people in England. But the evidence suggests that much of this vote was mobilised by radical grassroots campaigning - especially in Glasgow which produced a 'Yes' majority - to support independence. These were not romantic nationalists who wanted a separate Scotland for Scotland's sake, but rather an alienated group who felt left behind by the political establishment and who felt that new constitutional arrangements could produce a new politics where their voice would be heeded. For them, the identity that counted was more class (or perhaps 'estate') than nation.

So, next time there is a referendum, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to demonstrate all the various ways in which psychology is of importance to the outcome. And, whether sooner or later, there will be a next time. The result may have gone against the 'Yes' camp, but since the vote the membership of the 'Yes' supporting parties has tripled (the SNP is well on course for 100,000 members in a country of 5 million people), while the 'No' supporting parties are in turmoil. The polls put the SNP well in the lead in polling for next year's UK General Election with even the possibility of gaining enough seats to have the balance of power in a hung Parliament. What is more, polls also show that, were the referendum to be held again today, the yes vote would prevail.

These tendencies are only likely to increase. If the UK Government does not deliver on its hasty promises for more powers, then the legitimacy of September's result will be put in question. If the UK votes to leave Europe based on English (but not Scottish) votes, the legitimacy of the Union will be fundamentally compromised. There are interesting times ahead.

Looking forward to ISPP 2017

When ISPP assembles in St. Andrews in 2017, there will be much to discuss, relating to both a political psychology of the public domain and promoting political psychology in the public domain.

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