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
- for those on Twitter, #45 or #the45, and
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.