THE 2014 independence referendum was a watershed moment in modern Scotland. It changed Scottish politics and society, reaching and politicising constituencies and communities which had not been engaged in decades; after which things were never quite the same again.

It is surprising then that, considering the ­importance of 2014 and the liveliness of the issue ­today, one of the major omissions post-2014 has been the absence of a comprehensive post-mortem on why Yes lost and No won.

There are many reasons for this. There is the ­general busyness of politics, the numerous elections in the wake of 2014 that preoccupied the SNP and the fact that immediately after the vote, Yes Scotland ceased to exist.

Many independence supporters feel the above does not really matter. The reasoning – as someone said to me last week – is that “we know why we lost”. One common interpretation, regularly expressed, is that it was a combination of “the Vow, Gordon Brown and the BBC which won it”.

All of these factors had a role, but the absence of a proper analysis has allowed a set of mythologies to emerge unchallenged about why Yes lost. “Since there was no real analysis of why Yes lost in 2014, a lot of presumptions are circling now,” poses writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, “principally the ­presumption that more facts will fill the confidence gap felt by undecided voters.”

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It has allowed part of Yes to buy into a set of ­explanations selective and self-serving. It aids easy ­answers and scapegoating. It prevents ­pro-independence supporters learning and allows some to continue seeing the world only in terms of the certainties of Yes and No as fixed entities.

Jim Gallagher, who worked for Better Together in 2014, even questions the notion that Yes lost and No won: “I wonder if ‘lost’ and ‘won’ is the right way to frame this. We should not have a society in which nearly half are told they are losers and the ­others ­winners.”

As we reach a decade next year since Scotland’s historic vote, it is important that a comprehensive u­nderstanding of 2014 occurs. One that analyses why Yes lost and No won, and that addresses lessons and consequences for today and the future. And in so ­doing draws not upon mythology – no matter how powerful – but upon hard analysis.

The vote in 2014 was the greatest democratic ­exercise Scotland has experienced in its history. An unprecedented 84.6% turnout witnessed 55.3% of people vote No and 44.7% vote Yes in response to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country.”

Immediately after the result, Tory peer Michael Ashcroft published an instant survey which looked at reasons respondents gave for voting Yes and No. Asked to prioritise the top three reasons they ­voted Yes (from a closed list), 70% of respondents answered that decisions about Scotland should be made in ­Scotland, 20% thought on balance that Scotland’s ­future looks brighter as an independent country and 10% cited that independence would mean no more Tory ­governments.

Asked the top three reasons why they voted No, 47% of respondents thought the risks of ­independence too great, 27% felt attachment to UK history, culture and traditions and 25% believed that a No vote would still mean extra powers for the Scottish Parliament.

The National: A pro-independence voter surrounded by No voters in 2014A pro-independence voter surrounded by No voters in 2014

These findings confirmed what people already knew. There was an energy and positivity about ­independence, and negativity about the case for the Union. What No did successfully was ­question the risks of independence; what they didn’t do was ­remake the case for Britain. While senior ­Better ­Together figures afterwards were hailed as ­“strategists”, what they did was fight a successful ­tactical engagement.

The 2014 referendum brought independence in from the cold and made it mainstream. “A lot of ­people were hearing of the argument for ­independence for the first time,” says Professor John Curtice of ­Strathclyde University. “The Yes side won the campaign. The No side won the vote.”

Subsequently, significant studies of 2014 have been published – by the Centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University, and at the end of 2022, Ailsa Henderson et al’s The Referendum That Changed a Nation: Scottish Voting Behaviour 2014-2019. These combine to offer major findings into contours of the 2014 vote, and the politics of the present and future.

Digging into the 2014 data, there are positive ­findings for Yes. It had better reach, connection and engagement with the electorate than No. Over the campaign, 38% of respondents were contacted by an organisation; of those contacted, 75% recalled ­communication from Yes Scotland, 65% from Better Together. Yes had more of a public face with a 22% gap between Yes and No voters in putting up posters, 20% gap on persuading family and friends and 13% gap on attending public ­meetings.

Not only that, Yes was seen as ­having the better message – 57% said Yes had a clear vision of Scotland’s future, ­compared to 34% who said this of Better Together; 63% felt that the Yes campaign was very or fairly positive, while 58% rated Better Together as very or fairly negative; 93% of Yes supporters thought Yes ran a positive campaign, compared to only 34% of No supporters thinking this of No.

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Not only did Yes have the better tone and vision, on a number of core messages the political gradient pointed sympathetically to independence. Addressing five core propositions of Yes and No, only one in five No arguments were found to be “extremely convincing” by at least one-third of voters, while this was true of three out of five Yes arguments.

The Yes positions most ­convincing were that without independence, ­Scotland would continue to be governed by UK governments people had not voted for (39% extremely convincing); ­Scottish problems are better understood in ­Edinburgh than London (38%); and ­Scotland should be free to shape its own role in the world (34%).

The most convincing No argument was the extent of “unanswered questions” about what an independent Scotland would look like, with 36% of ­respondents finding it extremely convincing – a ­negative rather than a positive.

Why then did Yes not win? Maybe there is truth after all in the triptych of “the Vow, Gordon Brown and the BBC”? Alongside the above positives, a number of factors worked to the advantage of No – and the disadvantage of Yes.

The Centre on Constitutional Change post-referendum survey looked at the main reasons people gave for voting No. The top ones were: too many unanswered questions (27%); independence would make Scotland worse off economically (19%); and that “I feel British and believe in the Union” (17%).

It also posed a number of possible scenarios, all of which had been raised in the campaign, and asked if they ­occurred, how people would vote. The biggest swing occurred when respondents were asked if a “currency union” had been agreed ­between the Scottish and UK ­Governments, producing 41% Yes, 38% No, 21% don’t know.

The National: Yes supporters during the final days of the 2014 referendum campaignYes supporters during the final days of the 2014 referendum campaign

Curtice says there were “two ­principal reasons” why Yes lost: “They started a long way behind. Not more than 30% were convinced of independence when the referendum was launched.”

He continues: “The second thing is they did not succeed in persuading people of the economic case. The measurement that was most proximate to how people would vote on independence was their economic assessment of independence.”

Independence as a work in progress

All of the above illustrates that ­independence has work to do on how it understands the strengths and ­weaknesses of its appeal, and of the Union case.

“The Yes campaign was remarkably ­successful in shifting opinion in 2014 – anyone assuming that this will happen again is deluding themselves,” says Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University.

“It will be much more difficult to ­mobilise activists and support a second time around.”

It needs to have an economic ­argument; it needs to be able to convince more ­voters that an independent Scotland will be more prosperous; it has to have a more convincing position on currency; and it needs to talk more honestly about the risks, instabilities and unknowns which come with as big a change as ­independence (and which are inherent in remaining in the Union).

Another dimension that the independence debate has to connect to, is that ­people have collectively to feel confident, to believe in themselves and that they can shape Scotland’s future. This is a subject full of myths and taboos and talk of ­disabling divisions and fault lines which have supposedly enfeebled Scotland through the centuries.

Has Scotland really been a more ­“divided” society than anywhere else? Or just a society where some chose to go on at length about Scotland being “­divided”? When people who are pro-Union talk of the experience of “a bitter, divisive ­referendum”, they are talking about how 2014 was for them, but also drawing on this deep set of tropes: a Scotland ­supposedly unable to govern itself, held back by deep divisions.

With these qualifications, it is clear that the independence debate is ­related to the confidence question. Lesley ­Riddoch explores this territory in her new book Thrive: The Freedom To ­Flourish, ­believing that the confidence Scots feel in themselves is critical and links to ­arbitrary power making big decisions in people’s lives, powerlessness and what is called by psychologist Martin Seligman “learned helplessness”.

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“Even the most thoroughly researched case for a Scottish currency may not make up for the lack of democratic ­muscle memory among Scots thanks to feudal land ownership, the absence of real ­local government and an ­over-centralised ­Holyrood – producing governance and confidence among the very few, not the many,” observes Lesley Riddoch.

These sentiments find common ground with Curtice who states that ­“independence has many elements. One of them is the right to make our own ­mistakes. That Scotland has a right to ­decide its own future and live with the consequences.”

This is a mindset which finds itself ­rubbing up against how Scots have been told to see themselves and to behave by authority and institutional opinion – both inside Scotland and the UK. But that is changing here and a contributory factor in how independence has come so far already.

The power of finding my voice

THE 2014 vote was a momentous experience. An exercise in political education and citizenship whose consequences still affect – and which we are trying to comprehend. Kirsty from Glasgow voted No in 2014 and said recently to me: “I got into not raising my head above the parapet in life. I am still in the process of finding my voice. I want to know where and how I can have my say. I put my foot in the water, found my voice – and I now want to find out more.”

Kirsty is now an independence ­supporter, like her husband (who also voted No), but no-one should take her for granted, as she adds the rider: “I want to hear how Scotland becomes an ­independent country and about the ­difference independence is going to make. And I want to know the kind of Scotland my children are going to grow up and ­become adults in.”

This points to the truism that all ­movements which set out to challenge and disrupt the status quo have the ­capacity at a point in their evolution to fall for and internalise their own hype. In the case of independence, this includes a range of beliefs – that it was “the Vow what won it”, the role of the BBC or that there is no case for the Union and people are “indoctrinated into believing it”.

“Emotional appeals have limits and hard questions require convincing and coherent answers,” says James Mitchell, continuing. “Running away from difficult questions now will only make it more ­difficult to reach agreement in the event of any future referendum.”

A universal truism about politics is to understand and empathise with opponents, and to not succumb to dehumanising and caricaturing them. It is a mistake pervasive on the left in Britain with a whole spectrum of opinion demonising not just the Tory Party but anyone who votes Tory.

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“For supporters of independence, the 2014 campaign was a festival of ­democracy,” but it did not feel like that to supporters of the Union, says Professor Nicola McEwen of Glasgow University. “Scottish democracy would benefit from campaigners having more empathy for the hopes and fears of their opponents, and a commitment to securing the ­consent of those who find themselves on the losing side once the decision is made.”

The absence of a 2014 post-mortem ­examining how Yes lost and No won the referendum continues to have ­implications. It has been a significant ­factor in part of Yes choosing to believe its own mythologies, that somehow a ­rightful victory was “snatched” or “­stolen” by perfidious forces.

“Ten years on, the lesson of 2014 is that forcing people to make binary ­choices both divides the nation and fails to ­resolve the issue,” warns Jim Gallagher.

This illustrates that there are many ways to address the issue of Scottish self-government and degree of autonomy, and that just wanting to relive “the summer of 2014”, or pose the choice as between versions of independence and the Union which are complete opposites, is not the only way or even maybe the best way.

This does not even correspond with the actual Yes prospectus of 2014 which posed, in the words of Stephen Noon, chief strategist at Yes Scotland at the time, “a bit of Union and independence”.

Curtice believes that “Yes has to lay out the argument that Scotland will be better off outside the UK, inside the EU. The benefits of being inside one union rather than another. Basically it comes down to which union do you want to be in and think better?”

It is critical that we get the debate on Scotland’s future right. It involves ­understanding what happened in 2014, but even more importantly, it ­necessitates supporters of the Union and ­independence understanding and ­engaging with each other, and genuinely listening and learning.

Some on the independence side will ­regard this as treachery, but that is wrong, bad politics and bad democracy. There have been too few conversations across divides and barriers post-2014 and perhaps one answer to creating a ­better, more confident Scotland is to start ­listening more to people unlike ourselves.

The independence debate of 2014 transformed Scotland. That change of democratisation and of people finding a new voice cannot be reversed. But nor should it be seen as a one-off. Instead, 2014 has to be seen as part of our collective journey in challenging the limited power that Scots have traditionally had in their own society, and in aspiring to become citizens in our own land.

That is a challenging project, but we have to take charge of shaping our own future. We have to face difficult truths and conversations, break out of our echo chambers, and build and nurture that democratic muscle which will help people have the confidence to believe in themselves.

Gerry Hassan is the author of Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence, published by Pluto Press, £14.99