Monday Graph: The Scottish Independence Referendum and the collapse of the Conservative vote in Scotland



Well here we are, just 3 days lef to the Scottish Independence Referendum. Just until last month, it looked like the “Yes” vote was hardly approaching 40%, let alone stand any chance. Then September came and suddenly the possibility looks much more real; with that one Sunday Times Poll showing the Yes Campaign taking the lead with 51%; followed by two Survation and one ICM/Guardian polls indicating the No Campaign is back ahead- but only by an ever-so-slightly margin. (You can track Independence Referendum poll results here)

So, in other words…

How did we get here? A thought-provoking article on the Economist’s ‘Graphic Detail’ blog suggests that “An energetic campaign by the nationalists over the past months is one explanation. But the underlying causes go back much further. They lie in long-term shifts in the Scottish electoral landscape.”

Let’s look at the graphs published by the Economist:

Here we can see the results of general elections in Scottish Westminster constituencies (the electoral system is First Past the Post):



The most notable thing we can see in the charts is the collapse of the Conservative vote; as the Economist article explains,the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s gave the SNP “its electoral breakthrough in the two 1974 general elections under the slogan: “It’s Scotland’s oil”, […] entirely at the expense of the Tories (for years the stereotypical SNP voter was a dour oil executive).” Then, Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist reforms “accelerated the decline of Scotland’s heavy manufacturing base”,  making  “the Conservative Party unpalatable even to the middle-class voters who used to support it in large numbers”. Consequently, as we can see in the charts, Tories have been losing votes, with the SNP gaining votes instead, since the 70’s, and have stopped winning seats somewhere around the mid 90’s.

Nonetheless, because ” the flow of disaffected Tories to the SNP was fairly spread-out” across constituencies,  “in every election since 1970 the SNP has won fewer seats than it would have under a proportional system”; whereas Labour, having “ an efficient distribution of votes (in the large cities, mainly)” kept on gaining seats throughout the ’80’s and ’90’s.

Now, let’s compare this with the results for the Scottish Parliament, elected on an Additional Members System (very handily explained here):


The Economist explains: “Despite its conservative electorate, SNP had espoused a centre-left creed since the 1970s. With Labour in government during the 2000s, it began to win over working-class voters, but had to compete for them with the Liberal Democrats. The 2011 Scottish election, however, was a perfect storm: blue-collar voters disillusioned with Labour, a Labour leadership complacent after decades of dominance in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats now in government and suddenly unpopular. The SNP obtained a good (37%) increase in vote-share but a spectacular increase (152%) in seat-share on the constituency list. It could form a majority government and set about making plans for the referendum. That decades-long trajectory—the gradual emergence of a cross-class nationalism—has continued over the course of the campaign. According to the poll-of-polls produced by What Scotland Thinks, an independent research outlet, a unionist lead of about 20 points has turned into one almost too close to call. That shift has mostly taken place in the working-class districts of big cities that once spurned nationalism. If Scottish nationalism is now within striking distance of its goal, it is because it is more of a one-nation cause than ever before.”

What I find particularly fascinating about their take on the issue is the way it shows how -so to say- the mechanics of the system- things like how an electoral system works- are ultimately shaping what we as citizens can wish for, act  for and identify with; what we see as politically desirable and politically feasible.


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