In the early hours on Friday 19th September, the Scottish people voted to stay as part of the United Kingdom. Voter turnout was exceedingly high - 85% overall. The referendum was not a normal political contest. People who had never voted before, including 16 and 17 year olds, went to the polls and cast their vote for a momentous political decision. Nevertheless, despite the democratic success of the Scottish referendum, the honeymoon period for British politics will be short lived.
So, why was voter turnout so high for the Scottish referendum? A referendum meant the Scottish people were directly influencing their future; the fate of Scotland was in their hands. This was a decision taken through the fundamental involvement of the Scottish people as opposed to elected members voting on behalf of the nation. People felt empowered and felt part of a movement. It was a feeling that many had not felt nor experienced before. Secondly, because the stake of an independent Scotland was so high; it was not just a question of party politics, but of nationhood. The answer to which was irreversible.
This article has so far made three assumptions. Firstly, voter turnout was so high because the people directly chose whether Scotland would be an independent country. Secondly, the issue at stake had high political and national consequences. Thirdly, voters are rational; they weigh up the costs and benefits of choosing whether to vote. In this instance, the cost was too great to ignore. It is worth comparing the voter turnout of the Scottish referendum, 85%, to the turnout of recent Westminster elections. If we go back to 1997 we see a 71.4% turnout when Blair was elected. However, there has been a gradual decline ever since. For example, in 2001 turnout dipped dramatically to 59.4%, before gradually rising to 61.4% in 2007 and 65.1% in 2010.
The main overarching reason for why 2015 will fall victim to voter apathy, like recent general elections, is because people feel that their vote won’t make a difference. This in itself demands some explanation, something I will address later in the piece. However, for now it’s important to realise that during the referendum campaign people felt like they were part of a movement that could deliver change. They wouldn’t have turned out in the numbers they did if they didn’t think they could make a difference. This feeling was only possible because of the type of democratic process. Referendums are a form of direct democracy and thus when the issue at stake is high, like the future of Scotland, turnout will be high. The people of Scotland dictated Scotland’s future, not Westminster.
To go back to my previous point, the reason why voters in general elections feel that their vote won’t make a difference is because Labour and the Conservatives economically converged in the centre. In 1997 Labour moved to the centre ground to maximise their chance of attracting the median voter. The fact that the Conservatives were sat further to the right at that time can help us to explain why turnout was relatively high in 1997. However, when Cameron started to modernise the Conservatives from 2005 onwards in order to become electable, the difference between both Labour and the Conservatives became blurred, the parties only differing on cultural factors. Neo-liberal economics prevailed and, as Tim Bale states, Blair in many ways taught the Tories how to restore their electoral fortunes. The Tories’ move to the centre was in many ways a testimony to New Labour’s Ideological hegemony.
Therefore, the lack of perceived difference between both parties caused voters to believe that their vote would not make a difference. Hence, unlike the Scottish referendum, where the difference between remaining part of the union or going independent had vast political and national consequences, in many ways the option at recent general elections has not been significant enough to make people think about the political consequences.
The Scottish referendum will go down in history not just for its record high turnout, but for politically engaging the young and the disengaged. However, it has also taught us some valuable lessons about the nature of our democratic and political system. The lesson is that, despite voter apathy being a problem in Britain and other Western liberal democracies, referendums renew the idea that people can influence government. Perhaps in the future, striking the balance between direct and representative forms of democracy will be a challenge governments can’t afford to ignore.
By Alex Sargeson