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Society, Politics & Law

The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum - Uneven and unequal political geographies

Updated Monday, 2nd March 2015

The uneven political geography of the Referendum outcomes is marked in a number of different ways. 

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For a start we can observe that there is a strong correlation between income and wealth, and voting YES and NO. This is reflected in the geography of voting patterns across Scotland’s 32 council districts. In the early hours of Friday morning September 19, it was already clear that the income deprived areas were voting YES in large numbers. The four areas with a majority YES vote, Dundee, Glasgow City and two of its neighbouring local authority areas, West Dunbartonshire to the West of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire to its immediate East, contain the most deprived areas in Scotland.
In Glasgow, every single Scottish Parliament constituency (of which there are 8) returned a YES vote, particularly the big outlying working class housing schemes. In areas with a marginal NO vote (of between less than 1% and 3%), Inverclyde (Centred on the towns of Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow to the West of Glasgow), North Ayrshire, which is based around Irvine New Town, the Garnock Valley (Kilbirnie, Dalry, etc.), East Ayrshire (Kilmarnock and surrounding areas), and in Renfrewshire (centred on Paisley which also returned a YES vote), there was a clear split between town and country and between areas of poverty and (relative and absolute) affluence. 
The other marked feature of this uneven political geography is that with the exception of Dundee, all the areas with either a majority YES vote or marginal NO vote were located in West Central Scotland though Inverness in the Highlands, also returned a YES vote, but the overall vote for the Highlands area was NO.
More significantly, however, and this has ongoing repercussions for the Labour Party in Scotland, the vote for Independence was largely concentrated in what have long been regarded as traditional Labour Party heartlands. There was a stark contrast in the votes recorded in Scotland’s two largest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Edinburgh, all of the constituencies (there are 5 of these) returned a NO vote, with 61% for NO and 39% for YES overall.
In Glasgow every constituency returned a majority YES vote, of different proportions, and overall the YES vote was 53.5% and NO achieved 46.5%. Turnout in Glasgow was lowest in some of the poorer areas but which nonetheless returned a YES vote – but not in sufficient numbers overall to eat into the Scotland-wide NO lead. In Edinburgh the YES vote was largely recorded in the main housing estates. The historically different occupational class composition and employment and industrial structure of the two largest Scottish cities, with Edinburgh having a disproportionately large middle class, and that many of the financial services jobs threatened by claims that financial institutions would leave Scotland if there was a pro-Independence vote – were located in the Scottish capital, are among the main factors that explain the difference in voting patterns between these cities, only 50 miles apart.
There is no doubt the more affluent the area, the more likely it was to vote NO but in addition to this there was some contrast in the proportion of YES and NO votes cast between urban and rural Scotland. This lays bare the intra-regional political geography of contemporary Scotland though it will be difficult to predict exactly how this geography will change in the years to come as a result of wider social, economic and political shifts in Scotland.
Gordon Brown Creative commons image Icon Downing Street under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Commentators have blamed the 'Gordon Brown' effect for the Fife NO outcome
Of course the above geographical pattern does have some exception, reflecting the complexity of the overall geographical picture. That Fife returned a NO vote is seen as something of an anomaly (especially in areas such as the long economically depressed towns of Kirkcaldy, Methil and Cowdenbeath).  This requires more analysis but some commentators have pointed to the ‘Gordon Brown effect’ – given that he is a Fife based Labour MP with a large degree of popular suport in that region, and for some the ‘saviour’ of the NO campaign. Fife also has a number of commuters who work in Edinburgh and who may also have felt threatened by possible job losses after Independence. In the West of Scotland, Inverclyde district saw a very marginal NO vote of only 87 votes. This has long been a declining ex-industrial area where shipbuilding had been the major industry. 

Religion and voting


Relatedly, and also worthy of some comment, is that those areas voting YES have a larger Roman Catholic population, reflecting historic patterns of Irish immigration, particularly in the West of Scotland but also in Dundee, and there is some evidence that religion was mixed in with other factors in shaping voting patterns in some areas. Before the Referendum it was suggested that working class Catholics were the group most likely to vote YES
This in itself represents another remarkable shift. In less than a generation the SNP have gone from being a Party that had been viewed with some suspicion by large numbers of Catholic voters as being in some, albeit vague ways, for a ‘Protestant Scotland’, to a position now where it is attracting large numbers of votes and members from Roman Catholics. The main losers here are the Labour Party as rising support for the SNP has eroded Labour’s historically very strong standing among Scottish Catholics, it being the Party that was once committed to Irish Home Rule (and it must be said, to Scottish Home Rule too, at least prior to the Second World War!).
It is also highly likely that class is another important variable here in that the Catholic population has been over concentrated in working class areas, and likewise in more disadvantaged districts. Catholics have also largely depended on the historic post-1945 growth of the public sector for employment, a public sector that has been under attack and in retreat in recent times. However, such results now also point to a fragmenting ‘Catholic’ vote, though of course it would be mistaken to see such a vote or the Catholic population as an homogenous constituency, even if the Labour Party enjoyed overwhelming support from that section of the population.
Enduring commitments to a sense of Britishness and to a British National Identity are correspondingly strong in some areas that have historically had a strong ‘Orange’ presence, again in parts of Glasgow and the West of Scotland, and in areas of Fife and West Lothian. There have been suggestions that religious factors and identities explain differences in the YES/NO vote in different parts of the Western Isles – with the NO vote strong in Lewis and North Uist, heartlands of Free Presbyterianism, and the YES vote strong in the almost entirely ‘Catholic Islands’ of South Uist, Barra and Eriskay. 
The results of Lord Ashcroft’s Referendum exit poll suggest that there is something of a relationship between religious affiliation and referendum voting patterns. 57% of Catholics voted YES while only 30.9% of Protestants voted likewise. The majority of Catholics, non-Christians, and those professing no religion all supported Scottish Independence. It was only the votes of the majority of Protestants which saved the union. Here the sense of Britishness is considerably higher than in other sections of the population, so once more this suggests that there are multiple factors at work.
This article is part of a series of articles on the 2014 Scottish Referendum.






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