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John Stanton: Democracy and Scotland: Turning out for something special

johnAnd so the 2014 Scottish Referendum is done. The people of Scotland have voted and have rejected independence to the tune of 55% – 45%. Of course, the matter is far from settled and over the next few months, talk of devolution and of the English Question will no doubt feature prominently and be at the forefront of academics and politicians’ minds alike. Whilst the ‘No’ vote prevailed on the night, that vote wasn’t an acceptance of the status quo but for a fresh devolution discussion and settlement; one that would and could take place within a relationship of unity. Only time will tell if the desired constitutional reform materialises and the form that it will take.

There is, however, already one clear winner – democracy.

This important question of constitutional significance was left to the people of Scotland and, under the Edinburgh Agreement, was to be settled by one clear question, with the result taking a simple majority of its responses. This, of course, is to be praised. It goes right to the very heart of a democratic system that people should have a say on important, constitutional issues that directly affect the way in which they live and are governed. That is why there was a referendum in 1975 to determine continuing relations with Europe and it’s why we voted in 2011 on questions of electoral reform. Seeking popular opinion on questions of Scottish Independence was going to be the only way of democratically and fairly settling the issue. That the opinion of 16 and 17 year olds was included in that consultation only increases the democratic relevance of the vote and tests the water for potential electoral reform in the future.

What is most notable, however, is the turnout at the referendum, which is reported as being almost 85%. According to figures published by the Guardian, late in 2012, ( you would have to go back to the General Election of 1951 (82.6%) to find a turnout that even comes close to this figure, and to 1997 to find the most recent occasion on which more than 70% of the population went to the ballot boxes. Even the Scottish Devolution Referenda of 1979 and 1997 failed to inspire more than 63.6% and 60.2% voters respectively. Problems with voter turnout are far from new and have troubled democratic processes in the UK for some time. The last three UK General Elections show an average turnout of just 62% whilst, at the local governmental level, the average across the country has dipped as low as 31% in recent years. Are there lessons to be taken from the Scottish Referendum, then?

As part of a recent and ongoing qualitative research project into local authorities in London, I have recently been exploring the trends of community and citizen empowerment and the manner in which people engage with local issues. One thing that has come to light is that individuals tend to participate, volunteer and get involved due to personal inclination and motivation, and not as a result of anything that centralised government might say, do or provide. Many people take pride in their identity, where they live and the spaces in which they spend their daily lives and if they feel that they can make a real difference, contribute something meaningful and work to make local spaces better, then – out of the good of their own hearts – they will do so.

Though Scotland and the referendum on Independence is a totally different issue, I think that there are parallels to be drawn between local empowerment and the high turnout.

The people of Scotland were offered a clear question and were promised that a simple majority of either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would prevail. It became clear that the outcome and the consequences were in their hands and that they had the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the debate surrounding the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Voters felt that they were making a real difference and that somebody was listening.

In addition, the question – “should Scotland be an independent country?” – appealed to individuals’ basic identities and did not rest on what X political party was promising or what party Z would do differently. It was not about individuals taking up opportunities provided and set out by centralised authorities on issues that only politicians would continue to discuss, it was about personal identity and motivation to have ‘a say’ in an issue that affected their day-to-day lives.

Though campaigns and the media also played their own, inevitable part in inspiring people to get out and vote, one thing is clear. The question settled at the Scottish referendum was an important one for the people of Scotland and one that they themselves were given the opportunity to resolve. As an issue, it transcended political differences and appealed to instincts and characteristics that are more fundamental. And this, I think, is partly why the turnout was so high yesterday.

At General Elections, there is often much talk of disengagement with the system, disenchantment with the candidates, of votes counting for nothing and of all parties offering the same policies, which will come in regardless of what the public thinks. As a result, turnouts are not high enough. Individuals perhaps feel that they don’t make a difference, that there are few options and that things will go on around them regardless of their input.

Democracy is a wonderful, powerful and essential tool in modern society; absolutely fundamental to any working constitutional system. But it has to be used in a way that gives choice, allows people to make a difference and puts their needs first. We perhaps saw that yesterday for the first time in a long, long time.


John Stanton is a lecturer in law at City University, London.

Suggested citation: J. Stanton, ‘Democracy and Scotland: Turning out for something special’ UK Const. L. Blog (19th November 2014) (available at



2 comments on “John Stanton: Democracy and Scotland: Turning out for something special

  1. John Hartigan
    September 19, 2014

    I suggest a moment of pause before we congratulate ourselves too much on the democratic credentials of this process. It has been an excellent demonstration of democracy in Scotland. I am not sure it has been a democratic triumph for the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or its Parliament.

    The facts remain that, hitherto, constitutional change has required debate and a mandate from general election manifesto pledges. Thus devolution didn’t happen until a Labour government was returned to power in 1997 and 418 MPs had a mandate to pass devolution legislation to enable devolution referenda in Scotland and Wales. When it comes to independence, only 6 MPs can claim a mandate to legislate on an independence referendum. The prospect of independence has never been put to the UK electorate. I assume this awkward fact has not been raised in debate because many people agree with the legislation and to criticise the process could be interpreted (wrongly) as being anti-Scottish.

    Parliament crossed a constitutional Rubicon and acted far outside its normal competence. This is exceptionally dangerous for our democracy. With this precedent set, Parliament could agree to disestablish the Church of England, change the voting age or abolish the monarchy etc. without feeling obliged to seek a mandate from general election manifesto pledges or specific referenda. MPs have assumed unprecedented power to make fundamental constitutional changes without consent. Perhaps this should be challenged before the next major change turns out to be one that most people don’t agree with.

  2. markjf62
    September 19, 2014

    I venture to suggest that democracy is not a ‘tool’; it is a ‘system’. You can probably describe elections as ‘tools’; tools which are used within a ‘democracy’ to register and then implement the decided will of those who are entitled to participate and who make a choice from a number of possibilities (even if that is only two) offered to them by way of placing a cross on a piece of paper. Perhaps you can also make a case for the fact that if the ‘tools’ of democracy, for whatever reason, are regarded as being pointless and/or ineffective, the system itself becomes degraded, or suffers a loss of respect, to the point where you may even begin to question whether the system can properly be described as ‘democratic’.

    I would be interested to see the author expand some of the observations in his concluding paragraph. He states that democracy ‘has to be used in a way that gives choice.’ Whilst reading the preceding paragraphs, I had anticipated that he may have been moving towards a conclusion that suggested how lessons learned from what he appears to perceive to be a ‘triumph of democracy’ in the form of the Scottish referendum could be utilised in stimulating what could, I hope not unfairly, be said to be an electorate that has become increasingly disinterested and detached in terms of local and national political elections.

    In what way, for example, is the ‘tool’ he describes as democracy failing to provide choice in terms of such elections? In what way does it fail to put people’s needs first? There are a plethora of theories as to why turnouts at local and national elections are ‘not high enough’, although I would also be interested to know what the author might consider the level of turnout to be which he may regard as reaching this illusive threshold, perhaps allowing him to breathe a deep sigh of relief that democracy is in rude good health. He may rightly point to a very high turnout in the Scottish referendum, but you don’t need to be a political analyst to understand that free-standing, single-issue choices such as yesterday’s are very different beasts to political elections (and to be fair to the author I think this is something he recognises). These kinds of issues (and you could perhaps put a potential ‘in-out’ referendum on continued membership of the EU into this category) will inevitably engage people, as I think the author recognises. But the question is ‘can any lessons be extracted from this one-off, single-issue referendum which can be applied to counter whatever causes exist for the fall in turnout rates in local and national political elections?’

    In terms of a conclusion to some of the matters raised in the article, my overall feeling by the end was that I had been waiting for a bus that failed to arrive.

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This entry was posted on September 19, 2014 by in Scotland and tagged , .

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