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The Scottish Referendum – Lessons for market research and a view from Asia

The recent referendum held to determine whether Scotland should become a separate country from the United Kingdom returned a decisive “No” vote. With a record turnout of 85% of the electorate, 45% voted to become a separate country, while 55% voted to stay part of the United Kingdom.

There were important lessons in this referendum for market researchers.

The polls in the run up to the referendum indicated that the “Yes” campaign (for independence) had closed the gap to the “No” campaign (those opposing independence), who had always maintained a comfortable lead in the opinion polls. People were expecting a very close result to the final vote, perhaps by a fraction of a percent. However, what the polls did not take into account was how truthful respondents are when being polled. Staying part of the UK was sometimes seen as a betrayal to the Scottish cause, so a minority kept quiet about their intentions to vote to stay in the UK, but it was a minority that swung the vote towards the “No” campaign. Some claim that people simply lost courage at the last moment, arguing that people are naturally conservative (even in Scotland, where Conservatives hardly exist), and the prospect of change to be too frightening to implement.

A lesson for market research is about how important votes like this should be worded to avoid them being leading. The “Yes” campaign had an advantage because people could vote “yes” rather than “no”. “Yes” is a positive statement, which might have implied that voting for independence was a positive move. “No”, on the other hand, suggests a negative outcome. Would the result have been even more decisive if the question had been changed from “Should Scotland be an independent country?” to “Do you wish to remain part of the United Kingdom?”

Another observation is how the results get interpreted. Many, including the British prime minister, David Cameron, stated the vote was a “decisive” result. Even the media, supposedly neutral, also reported it as a “decisive vote”.

However, the Scottish National Party (SNP), who championed the independence movement, reported losing by a “narrow margin” and kept on referring to the 1.6 million people who voted to break away from the United Kingdom. This reflects how researchers can report survey results in different ways. Of course, surveys are different from referenda, because there is sampling error, and indeed 45% versus 55% on low-sample surveys can actually mean an opposite result at a universal level. Referenda are also sample surveys in a way (because not everyone votes), but in the case of the Scottish independence vote, 85% cast a vote, which reduces the sampling error almost to nothing.

But it is how results can be reported that can shape opinion. The SNP can argue that a shift of only 6% from the “No” vote to the “Yes” vote would have won them independence. This way, 6% looks pretty small and is perhaps an argument for another referendum soon, despite the SNP saying that the recent referendum was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

You can also call on absolute numbers to get your message across – in this case an impressive 1.6 million people in Scotland made a statement that they no longer wanted to be part of the UK. Researchers, like politicians, can always fall back on absolute numbers if they need to make results look more favourable. After all, 45% is a high number, and almost a majority!

However, the “No” camp can also make the results look more favourable. For example, “compared to those who voted for independence, 25% more people in Scotland voted to stay part of the union” (i.e. 2 million compared to 1.6 million). This sounds like a lot more than the 10% difference between 45% and 55% when we report the results by the total sample (or population).

But perhaps most importantly, the lessons are also about how people vote. People make many decisions irrationally and based on their emotions. Scotland, the SNP claimed, is a rich country and would therefore be better off on its own and able to spend even more on public services. In reality, Scotland has a bloated public sector indicative of a private sector punching below its weight. It has an ageing population that will cost progressively more to look after in the future, and dwindling oil reserves that are always subject to price volatility.

Industry experts within retail, banking, and the oil industry (with no political agenda) warned of the dire consequences of Scottish independence. Prices would rise, and a new Scottish government would have less to spend on public services, due to the cost of implementing independence and the need to build up liquidity for the new nation in the absence of financial support from the Bank of England. Many companies stated they would move out of Scotland if there were independence, which would have resulted in even more job losses for Scotland. And with the inevitable increase in taxes as a result of higher costs, those who do generate the wealth might have moved out of Scotland to lower tax environments. Indeed, we see many Scots in Singapore and Hong Kong who have done just this.

However, 45% of the electorate voted “Yes, please. We want all of this!” The appeal of independence can seem irrational, but then why do so many young adults in the UK move out of the relatively plusher homes of their parents to seek independence in grotty bedsits and pay more for the privilege? In Asia, most young adults stay living in their parents’ home until they get married and, as a result, save a fortune. The UK does not seem rational!

From the Asian perspective, we have seen small countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong prosper, partly because they are small. Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and one of the only council areas that voted for independence. Could Glasgow alone be given independence and become the Singapore of Europe? Could it become a gateway to Scotland, Scandinavia, and Iceland in the way Singapore is for Southeast Asia, or Hong Kong for China? Could it become a preferred lifestyle destination with low taxation and almost full employment?

London has a better chance of becoming a truly prosperous city state, with its financial services, marketing services, media, creative industries, and tourism. If you include the IT and high-tech manufacturing industries of the South East of England, you have a good argument for creating a new independent state, separate from the UK. And with that Channel Tunnel, it could really be a gateway for Asian investors to Europe . . . assuming, that is, you want to stay in the European Union.