Persuading the generation that created the welfare state that independence is an option is the key, writes Kate Higgins
Bubbling away below the headlines of the referendum polls, the demographic breakdowns reveal a more complex picture of who is voting what on 18 September.
Since the campaign began in 2012, people over the age of 65 have been overwhelmingly in favour of voting No. From ICM’s first independence poll conducted in January 2012 to its latest for Scotland on Sunday (June 2014), little has changed, with roughly two-thirds of over 65s intending to vote No.
The picture for younger adults aged 25 to 44 is more variable. In January 2012, they were marginally in favour of voting Yes; by January 2014, No led by a single percentage point. The ICM poll in May this year suggested No’s lead had opened up, but just one month later, a substantial lead for Yes was recorded. Throughout the campaign, younger adults have been on a political see-saw of indecision, switching rapidly between options, while older voters have remained resolute in their choice.
Their rationale for voting No is a complex soup of the personal, the historic and the risk factor. Ask retired women over 65 in particular why they are voting No and the response can be everything from “I’m fine as I am” to “I don’t want the upheaval at my time of life”. Older voters are more bound by the ties of the past and this plays to the Better Together narrative of there being strength in the Union.
Moreover, many pensioners fear losing what they have now and have worked hard to achieve, preferring to stick with what they have in their hand rather than twist for a card still sitting face down in the pack.
The Yes campaign needs to do more to reassure on pensions and also on what devolution has delivered for pensioners, particularly under an SNP government. Voting Yes does not mean losing free personal care, free bus travel or free prescriptions; indeed, with Westminster about to remove £5 billion from the Scottish block grant, voting Yes might well be the only way to maintain these benefits.
Persuading more pensioners to vote Yes on 18 September matters, not least for logistical reasons: people over 65 vote, and in large numbers. However, voter registration levels suggest that turnout among younger adults – the children and grandchildren of the over 65s – might also be high. If, as now seems likely, a majority of them vote Yes, then we could end up with a generational split in the vote, with the aspirations of those who want independence being thwarted by their parents and grandparents.
Accordingly, Yes Scotland might want to facilitate some inter-generational conversations on voting intentions. It must also give the over 65s better reasons to vote for independence. Given that more of these older voters are women, the Yes campaign needs to understand what makes the nation’s grannies tick.
This is the generation who built the welfare state in the aftermath of the Second World War, augmenting it in the 60s and 70s, cherishing it right up to the arrival of Thatcherism. Since then, the consensus which resulted in near-universal approval for increased public spending on services which provided a dignified life for all and a route out of poverty for many, has been chipped away. Yet, it stuck in Scotland, with this older generation providing a dented shield to preserve and develop Scottish public services, particularly with the advent of devolution.
The Yes campaign also needs to remind people that the welfare state was born despite the howling opposition of the privileged professional classes who argued it was too difficult, would cost too much and wouldn’t work. Our parents and grandparents ignored the furious reaction of the establishment and the culture of fear it invoked and built something truly wonderful. Far from being the route to breaking this legacy, independence is the means by which older voters can hand it on to the next generation: a Yes vote is the only way to maintain and build on a communitarian ethos where public sector investment in health, housing and education creates a rising tide to lift all boats.
It would appear to be an argument that their children and grandchildren get. Statistics published this week by the Scottish Government show that one million people in Scotland are now living in relative poverty.
The worst hit are children, with 220,000 now losing out on their childhoods. Poverty is also expanding its grip beyond workless households: six out of ten poor children are in families where at least one adult works.
These families have seen their income levels fall because of Westminster’s handiwork. A tangible and very real outcome of life continuing under the union is that Scotland’s children will pay the price of policies pushed through by governments we do not vote for and do not want.
The consequences of a No vote need to be explained to older voters and they boil down to this: the referendum isn’t only about the future you want to have, but also about the kind of future you want your children and grandchildren to look forward to.
By opening up this space in the referendum debate, Yes Scotland will enable older voters to reflect and be challenged on what kind of Scotland they want for their children and grandchildren. It will allow them to work out that independence is key to having access to quality, public services which not only provide dignity in old age, but equality of opportunity for all. That what we want hasn’t changed, it’s just that we need different structures to deliver it. They will realise that independence gives their children and grandchildren the chance of a decent education, a job that sustains and crucially, enables them to move on and up in the world.
In doing so, the Yes campaign should also remind everyone over 65 of the words of the wonderfully canny, wise and sadly late Margo MacDonald: “This is our time of reckoning. We’ve got to take it and if we don’t take it, we are consigning our children to much less than we’ve had – to narrow horizons, lower aspirations. We are consigning our children to being small when we should be giving them a much bigger world.”
• Kate Higgins is a political blogger. www.burdzeyeview.wordpress.com