IT’S an old joke: A local is asked by an outsider how to get to a particular place. The local, after a suitable pause, replies: “Well if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here”.

If the Scottish independence movement wants to get to where it wants to go, it must know where it is now and what the path to success looks like.

It was on this basis that the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) commissioned Heriot-Watt University to explore different voter groups and their feelings, beliefs and opinions regarding independence, their thoughts on the future and what will influence their vote next time. From here, the movement and SIC can build their efforts to influence those who voted Yes to do so again, and to persuade those who for legitimate personal reasons could not support independence last time to change their minds.


IT is vital to state here that we did not conduct a survey or opinion poll. These quantitative techniques focus on measuring factors such as beliefs, voting intentions and demographics (i.e. age, gender) using large samples with the intention of making inferences about the wider population.

If you want to get at “why” and understand voters’ lived experiences, the reasons and feeling behind what they think and do, and to explore motivations that remain hidden to surveys, then you need to probe more deeply using qualitative research. This type of research studies small samples and makes no claims about how generalisable its findings are in the wider population. To do that, you use the findings to produce a survey and test them in larger samples, something the SIC are planning.

The study, to be expanded on at the “Build” conference, is based on six focus groups, each with up to eight participants chosen based on their past and future voting intentions. Groups consisted of equal numbers of men and women and a range of ages. The key objectives were to explore why they voted as they did, to understand what influences their opinions about Brexit and independence and to explore how they might be persuaded to vote Yes in the future. Below are a subset of key themes that emerged from the analysis conducted by five researchers.

If the independence movement wants to head off in an appropriate direction, where do they and the voters stand currently and what should it be doing?

Here are the key insights:

  • Voters are overwhelmed
  • Brexit is expected to be a shambles but is not yet clearly influencing voting intentions
  • No and undecided voters want information and facts but did not get these during the last referendum ...
  • ... and they have been given very little reason to change their minds.

Despite this, it is clearly possible, through strong government performance and detailed planning to create a clear Trajectory to Success that will reduce voters’ (continued) uncertainty about independence. Oh, and they don’t want independence supporters to be out campaigning. Yet.


ONE of the clearest themes from all groups is that voters are overwhelmed, tired and confused. This is mainly due to the number of recent elections and that these have led to greater uncertainty and change. Feeling overwhelmed is also partly down to not being used to making these decisions and being overwhelmed with too much choice and information (ironically). When you’re overwhelmed you tend to withdraw from the situation causing it, therefore they don’t really want to get involved in another independence campaign.


THE Brexit vote and period since has clearly contributed to this sense of dislocation and, beyond anger, shock and disbelief at the decision, voters also felt embarrassed.

Some No voters also felt betrayed by the UK – they expected support for standing by it, and instead they’re being dragged out of the European Union.

There was a strong sense of being confused about what it means (and is likely to mean), and one way of dealing with this expressed by some voters was a desire to “just get on with it”.

However, Brexit hasn’t happened yet and the independence movement must be careful about making assumptions about its power to change minds. Voters expressed reasons why Brexit makes independence more and less likely. For some, there is still hope that the Brexiteer promises may come true.

In an interesting insight, one No voter commented that just because Westminster proved itself to be incompetent, it does not necessarily mean Holyrood is competent enough to replace it. When discussing Brexit, the movement must avoid “I told you so”.

Overall however, there is a strong expectation that once the deal is known, things go as badly as anticipated and the effects are suffered personally, it will change how some will vote.


“I THINK a lot of people would have voted differently if they had the right information. Lack of information baffled a lot of people.” (Yes to Yes)

Connected to a feeling of being overwhelmed is the theme that voters did not get the information they wanted or needed to make their decision. I am sure the first response of many Yes campaigners would be that they provided vast amounts of information and facts last time.

However, to some extent, these interventions clearly did not resonate or provide the answers that voters who might have voted Yes say they wanted.

In a nutshell, they wanted facts but they too often got statistics, a form of data they don’t like nor trust and which leads to “stairheid rammies” between politicians who they also don’t trust. To understand this further we examined what they meant by “facts”. Ultimately facts can be seen, heard and are tangible now or in the past. No and undecided voters are using their (and their families’) experience of public service as “facts” and these are not, in their opinion, going well.

Unfortunately for Yes, this is being used to reinforce their feelings that their decision was correct. In a nutshell, the message is: “If we are failing to run the country well now then how can we be trusted to manage the rest of the powers independence would bring?”

No subtle knowledge of which powers were reserved or devolved was found and it’s the SNP who are being blamed for various failings – not “Tory austerity”.


“SINCE then there’s been no more kind of information that’s come out on the topics that we discussed like currency or taxation or anything like that. There’s been no more because it’s all finished with so, you know, maybe I would have ... maybe I would have thought about changing my mind, but …” (No to No)

People seek evidence that supports their decisions, and those who voted No appear to feel safer with their choice, though it also doesn’t make them feel particularly good. This is partly because, since 2014, they feel no information or prospectus has been advanced to change their minds.

Together this suggests that Yes has not made the case for independence either directly through coherent, relevant plans or indirectly through the evidence of running the country. Complicating matters, however, is the first theme set out above – voters are overwhelmed and do not want to engage in a fresh independence campaign.


“WE can’t have future facts but we can have a future plan.” (No to Yes)

The insights presented make for sobering reading. Nevertheless, it is also abundantly clear from all groups that voters “get” independence – and the idea that it is better to make decisions for yourself.

Considering voters’ dissatisfaction with statistics, their desire for “facts” and their use of their own lived experience, it becomes vital for the Yes movement to take evidence from the here and now and project it forward to provide a Trajectory to Success. This will combine current performance on key issues such as education, health, housing, economy, energy and provide evidence for the future through detailed planning on these issues.

Showing a trajectory is critical considering the future is unknown and uncertain. In the absence of a crystal ball, a trajectory provides a path that reduces perceptions of risk by building feelings of self-efficacy (i.e. you have the skills to do the job required).

As the voters appear to need to see and feel change now as a way of making the case for independence in the future, to do this (no pressure here!) the SNP must be brilliant at their day job.


“WHO is the SNP minister in charge of referendum planning?” (Yes to Yes).

To project this confidence forward in time, the voters expressed a desire for detailed, honest plans for the institutions, economy and services which will form the backbone of the new Scotland. Specific issues discussed see many familiar faces return. Currency; Europe (with EU, EFTA and EEA discussed); an economic plan which treats oil as a bonus. The next “currency issue” (i.e. the most contentious debating point) will be trade and border issues with the UK. Irrespective of which options are chosen, they must be under the control of the Yes movement. Put another way, the currency option cannot be the pound as in the minds of these voters this is controlled by the UK and the Scottish Government can’t deliver it.

So, what should the Yes movement be doing? It should be getting organised locally and nationally. It should be producing realistic, detailed visions of what independence will look like at local and national levels. The voters want the Scottish Government to turn the promises made during 2014 into a reality, now. Having produced the facts when Brexit has begun to bite, then it will be time to start campaigning.

Dr Iain Black is Associate Professor in Marketing at Heriot-Watt University

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