IN 2014, the British Election Study (BES) asked voters across the UK about their attitudes to risk. The question was very useful to many of the academics for whose benefit the BES is run, but it was of particular interest to academics studying the Scottish independence referendum, since attitudes towards risk turned out to be a useful predictor of voting behaviour.
Those who said that they were generally “very willing” to take risks were one-and-a-half times more likely to vote for independence than those who said they were very “unwilling” to take risks (54 per cent as compared to 35 per cent). That’s a larger gap than the gap in support between 18 to 25-year-olds (roughly one half of whom voted Yes), and over 65s (one third of whom voted Yes).
As with many findings from survey research, it’s possible that this association is just standing in for some deeper relationship. Older people are generally more risk-averse, and older people might, for very many different reasons, have been more opposed to independence.
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But it’s possible that attitudes to risk shaped the independence vote, and that the Yes campaign lost in part because it was selling a riskier product.
If this interpretation of the data is correct, then there are three paths that supporters of independence might pursue in any subsequent referendum campaign.
They might alter people’s tolerance for risk – but this might be undesirable on other grounds. They might make independence seem less risky – but this was surely also an aim in the 2014 campaign. Or, they might make remaining within the UK seem riskier.
This third option is one which voters across the UK have pursued through their decision to leave the European Union. To state the matter in the most anodyne terms possible, it is not yet clear what kind of Brexit the UK will pursue, and it would be fortunate indeed if we ended up experiencing the best of all possible Brexits.
It is now easier than it ever has been before to argue that remaining part of the UK may mean committing to a poorer, meaner future, in just the same way that is is now easier than it ever has been before to argue that remaining part of the UK may mean moving forward into broad sunlit uplands. You spin the wheel and you take your chances.
This argument about risk and uncertainty is different to the usual arguments about why Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely.
On one argument, Scottish voters like the European Union more than English and Welsh voters; independence may be one means of preserving or re-acquiring membership of the European Union; and so independence becomes more attractive for this reason.
On another argument, Scottish voters are more left-wing and more open to international integration than English voters. Brexit signals the ascent of a closed right-wing politics and so remaining part of the UK becomes less attractive for this reason.
These are reasonable arguments, but in my view they identify reasons which might strengthen existing support for independence rather than broadening support.
The BES data I mentioned before showed that No voters were on average far more sceptical of the EU than Yes voters, and less likely to believe that immigration had benefited the UK. Votes from more convinced supporters of independence might be more ardent, but they are counted in exactly the same way.
It’s through its effects of risk that Brexit makes independence more likely. A Brexit which is nasty, brutish and short would not help: people often decide to stick with the devil they know even when the stink of sulphur is all around.
A Brexit which is prolonged, which faces challenges in the courts and in Parliament, which canvasses multiple, partly incompatible options, is a Brexit which may make remaining part of the UK the riskier choice.
Dr Chris Hanretty is a reader in politics at the University of East Anglia