Why 38 is more important than 45

This is a story about numbers.

Anyone following the aftermath of Scotland’s independence referendum can scarcely have missed the adoption of the number 45 as a symbol by some of those who voted Yes. It is of course the percentage, roughly, of those voting who voted Yes in the referendum.

As a rallying cry it assumes various forms, for example

  • 45
  • the45
  • for those on Twitter, #45 or #the45, and
  • 45+.

That last is most egregious because most untrue, but not as daft as the person who cried out on social media

We don’t need 5% to get a majority, we only need 3%!

The statement was so intellectually and arithmetically incompetent that I couldn’t even be bothered to ask him (surely it was a he?) what on earth he meant.

The alternative story, one almost as well publicised, is that the 45% should actually be 38% (or, as we shall see, even less).

The reason is simple. Only – I say only but of course it was a record-breaking turnout for modern UK referenda/elections – 85% of the registered electorate voted. So if 45% voted Yes, only 38% of the electorate did (0.85×45%=38%).

Not only was there a record turnout of the electorate, the electorate was also at record levels, with many people registering to vote who had never done so before. But like voting, registration in the UK is also a voluntary act. According to The Guardian 97% of the population eligible to vote (any resident adult aged 16+) had registered by the deadline for the referendum.

That means, of course, that the 38% of the electorate who voted Yes were in fact only 36.9% (38%x.97) of the eligible adult population.

37% it hardly needs pointing out, is only a wee bit above 33%, or one-third.

Scarcely more than one-third of the adult population of Scotland voted for independence.

The counter argument to my arithmetic, and it has been put to me, is that, ‘Ah, if you want to say only 38% voted for Yes you should apply the same rule to the other side, so only 47% voted for No.’ That argument is of course correct arithmetically: 0.85×55%=47%.

But Scotland had known for four years that a referendum would be held – from 2011 when the SNP first formed a majority government. Independence is the SNP’s overwhelming, many would say only, objective. So much was going for independence. The referendum was held in agreement with the UK government but on grounds and a date largely of the SNP government’s choosing. They  were widely (although of course not universally) thought to have made a good fist of their stint in power since 2007 when they formed a minority government. Their Scotland’s Future white paper had set out in great detail what their policies would be post-independence. Other smaller parties and many civic groupings supported the campaign. For some, there was an emotional background of nationhood and history: for others, disgust at Westminster politics. The enthusiasm and commitment were palpable, even if there was a nasty tinge to some of the campaigning.

After all this, people just needed to answer one simple question in the referendum by putting an ‘X’ in a box next to Yes or No. With the option of a postal vote, they didn’t even need to leave their homes to do it or be in the country on referendum day. And yet despite everything, scarcely more than one-third of the adult population could be bothered to vote for independence.

People’s motives for voting Yes or No, or not voting or even registering to vote, have been subject to a lot of analysis and speculation, some of it not particularly helpful. But the fact is that given the chance over 63%, almost two-thirds, of the Scottish population have not expressed a wish for independence.

The SNP government and the wider independence movement need to recognise this. The government in particular needs to accept that they were defeated in the referendum. They lost. On this one issue they do not represent the views of most of the Scottish people. They should temper their language and their aspirations in all the work and discussion now underway to devolve more responsibility to the Scottish parliament.

And let’s just get rid of that ‘#the45’ nonsense. If they want a hashtag, let them use ‘#theonethird’.

Friendly correspondents have pointed out to me that the true percentage of Yes votes was 37.7%. True, but I usually round figures to the nearest whole percentage as they are easier to read, even if that does give a 0.3% crumb of comfort to the losing Yes side in the referendum.

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3 Responses to Why 38 is more important than 45

  1. Steve says:

    In addition, or in fact subtraction, Scots living outside the country where denied the vote by the SNP. An estimated 800,000 in the UK and possibly 500,000 outside the UK (there are different estimates, but these are pretty well regarded.)

    So the 35 percent are in fact Scots living in Scotland, not Scots working and paying tax into the Scottish exchequer (as Scots in the rest of the UK), or all ethnic Scots.

    The SNP dimiss Scots living outside Scotland as not being Scottish enough to vote – see Salmonds comments about it being their choice to leave. However, if like most countries in the world you extend rights and nationhood to those who happen not to be in the country, then the 35 drops to approximately the 24% (back of the fag packet calculations, but you get the gist.)

    24% of adult ethnic Scots voted for independence.


  2. Andrew says:

    Your statistical breakdown of the results doesn’t really work however. You can try to make it as scientific looking as you like but it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    If people did not vote you have taken non-voting as an implied vote for no, whereas people may have had a myriad of reasons for not voting. These same people also could not be bothered to go out and vote No.

    The only figure that really matters is of the total number of clear votes cast (3,619,915), 44.7% (1,617,989) of those were for independence.

    Also, just as a side note, the SNP will never ‘move on from this’ as it is their express reason for existing. It’s equivalent to saying the Conservatives should move on from protecting millionaires and plunging people into poverty.

    tl;dr Leave the statistics to the statisticians.


    • Roger White says:

      Thanks for commenting. I think any difference between us is not statistical but political. The point I was trying to make was that after a number of years where the fact that a referendum was coming, and two (?) years of campaigning, all the government’s efforts etc etc, only 38% of the electorate could be bothered to turn out and positively vote for indy. That’s all. i don’t count non-voters as ‘Nos’ just as ‘not Yesses.’ I do agree with you on the SNP as, yes, it is their only reason for existing.


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