‘Can’t you people move on?’ The case of youngsters for Yes and pensioners for No

Another day, another myth.

There was a typical exchange on Twitter last night. Someone bemoaned the fact that as an OAP (her term) she felt stigmatised by Scots who wanted independence, because they blamed older people for the No majority in the referendum. Those who remember the immediate aftermath of the referendum might recall how accusations to that effect flew around on social media, accompanied occasionally by the delightful thought that ‘Never mind, once they all die off we’ll get it.’

In the wake of the comment by the ‘OAP’ someone asserted

around 70% of young people voted Yes, while 73% of OAPs voted No.

These sorts of absolute statements (on either side or neither) always have me reaching for my statistical shotgun. In this case I had a memory that surveys had suggested a majority of only one age group, younger adults, had voted Yes. Every other age group had produced a majority for No.

As so often I turned to the wisdom of Professor John Curtice to check the facts. Amongst many other things he runs the What Scotland thinks web site, where I found his summary of So Who Voted Yes and Who Voted No?

Curtice cites two reputable surveys carried out in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, one by YouGov, the other commissioned by that curiosity of modern politics, a party politician who commissions and publishes objective opinion polls, Lord Ashcroft.

Neither YouGov nor Ashcroft confirm the glib summary of the Twitter claim about voting by age group and their best estimates are constructed and qualified in ways you might want to check. But this is what they found.






Source: YouGov, re-survey of sample polled previously, sample size 3,188






Source: Lord Ashcroft Polls, overnight poll of  voters, sample size 2,046


Understanding these figures is complicated by the fact that the two surveys use different populations, sample sizes and age breakdowns. The percentages quoted on Twitter can be found, but only in the Ashcroft poll, and they need heavy qualification.

First, the 71% of ‘young people’ voting Yes are only 16-17 year olds. More importantly, Ashcroft’s sample includes only 14 people in that age group and on that basis any estimate is likely to be so inaccurate as to be worthless. If you combine the 16-17 year olds with his 18-24s, 51% voted Yes, 49% No, almost exactly the same as YouGov’s 16-24 years olds.

Second, at the other end of the age range it’s true that 73% of Ashcroft’s 65+ group (488 people) say they voted No. But the YouGov poll shows 66% (of 669 people) voted No. Probably the best you can say from these two surveys is that the truth is likely to lie somewhere between the two estimates, perhaps nearer the YouGov figure.

The truth (insofar as we’ll ever know it) of how different groups of people actually voted in the privacy of the polling booth will never be known. The broader trends agree but I’m inclined to trust the YouGov figures more because their sample size was so much bigger, over half as large again as Ashcroft’s.

The wilder protagonists on either side of the independence/separation divide might say this is all pretty dull stuff. The reason I labour the point about these statistics goes back to my opening remark about ‘another day, another myth.’ The person who quoted the 70%/73% figures said she’s a student at Glasgow University, surely not an unintelligent person. But she clearly believes that ‘young people’ are hugely in favour of independence and ‘OAPs’ hugely against. The truth is much more complex and of course no amount of analysis overturns the fact that 55% of the voting electorate said No, only 45% Yes.

I’ve been asked the question in the title of this post a number of times – ‘Can’t you people move on?’ Yes, I’m desperately keen to. But by the end of yesterday’s exchange I could not elicit anything from the original poster of the 70%/73% statistics except that we had different opinions and, by implication, they were equally valid. I don’t know if her position was naïve or wilful but I do know another myth is being created.

Footnote – creating and maintaining myths is of course central to the tools of nationalism. Search this blog for ‘myth’ and see what I mean. For examples check out the myths of what Scots think about Trident and how unionists assault innocent freedom-loving pensioners.

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