Why the women’s vote could be a deciding factor in the independence referendum
It has long been evident. It shows little sign of diminishing. And it could well determine the outcome of the independence referendum. The culprit? The gender gap in attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional future, perhaps the most formidable obstacle standing between the Yes campaign and the realisation of its ambition to make Scotland an independent country.
Poll after poll shows that women are markedly more reluctant to embrace the independence cause (just as they are also to vote for the SNP). Most recently, four polls conducted during the course of the last month have, on average, reported that just 26 per cent of women back leaving the UK, while no less than 55 per cent are opposed.
The Yes side is trailing amongst men too, but the deficit is nothing like so great. On average, 36 per cent say they are in favour of independence while 49 per cent are opposed. In short, if women were as keen on independence as men, the independence movement could at least plausibly claim that the winning post was in sight rather than, as currently appears to be the case, on the other side of the horizon.
It is thus little wonder that under the banner, Women for Independence, a campaign was launched a couple of months ago with the objective of promoting support for independence amongst women in particular. The Yes camp badly needs it to succeed.
At first glance, the existence of the gender gap appears very surprising. Women are, after all, no less likely than men to lay claim to a strong sense of Scottish identity. According to the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 31 per cent of women say they are ‘Scottish, not British’, a figure that is actually slightly higher than the equivalent figure, 28 per cent, amongst men.
If the demand for independence were simply about identity, about the claim that Scotland should be able to rule itself just like any other nation, then there is every reason to anticipate that women would be just as keen on independence as men. For women, however, feeling a strong sense of Scottish identity is less likely to be considered sufficient reason to back independence.
Rather, they are more concerned about its practical consequences. This becomes very apparent when people are asked whether they would support or oppose independence if they thought the standard of living would be £500 a year lower if Scotland left the UK and also what their view would be if it were £500 higher.
Unsurprisingly, many men as well as women adopt a different stance towards independence in these two contrasting, hypothetical set of circumstances. The idea of a prosperous independent Scotland is much more attractive than the image of an impoverished one. But it is for women that the issue matters most.
When presented with the scenario that independence would deliver a £500 benefit, women (63 per cent in favour) are almost as keen on independence as men (67 per cent).
But when asked to consider the possibility that they might be £500 a year worse off, only 13 per cent of women said they would still back the idea, less than half the proportion of men (29 per cent) who would do so.
In short, for women, independence is a question of practicality rather than principle.
Moreover, at the moment they are also rather less convinced of the practical merits of the proposition.
For example, women are a little less likely than men to think that independence would result in a stronger economy. While 36 per cent of men think that Scotland’s economy would be better under independence, only 33 per cent of women are of that view. Women are also less convinced that an independent Scotland would have a stronger voice in the world. Just 19 per cent think the nation’s voice would be ‘a lot stronger’ compared with 26 per cent of men.
However, what stands out from the survey data is not so much that women are rather more sceptical about the consequences of independence as the fact that they bring to the topic a greater air of hesitation and uncertainty. They are simply much more likely than men to say that they do not think independence would make much difference either way or that they just do not know what its consequences would be.
For example, as many as one in three women either say they do not know whether Scotland would have a stronger voice in the world or else that they reckon it would not make much difference either way. In contrast, only a quarter of men respond in one or other of these two ways. Similarly, 38 per cent of women give one or other response when asked about the economic consequences of independence, compared with 34 per cent of men.
In part this reflects the deeply political nature of the independence project – and that debates about politics of any kind are less likely to appeal to women. In the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, just 26 per cent of women said they had ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of interest in politics, compared with no less than 39 per cent of men. This relative lack of interest in politics is then reflected in a greater reluctance to take a clear view on what independence might bring.
But there appears to be more to this sense of hesitancy and uncertainty than merely a lack of interest in matters political amongst women. It also appears to reflect a rather different balance of psychological predispositions to the prospect of independence.
Mr Salmond frequently talks of the need for Scots to develop an air of confidence about themselves and their future, and thus develop a willingness to grab the opportunities potentially afforded by independence. He is quite right to do so; few Scots who do not feel confident about the prospect of independence are willing to back the idea.
And at the moment that sense of confidence is particularly lacking amongst women. Amongst men, 37 per cent say they feel confident about the prospect of independence, almost matching the 43 per cent who say they feel worried. In contrast, just 25 per cent of women feel confident about leaving the UK, while almost twice as many, 48 per cent say they are worried.
Perhaps in inviting us to step boldly into a bright, but as yet unfamiliar future, the rhetoric of the Yes camp is one that resonates more with the hunter-gatherer, assertive side of our natures rather than our desire for calm and security. And stereotypical though the observation might be, maybe as a result this means its message appeals to fewer women than to their male, more macho counterparts.
It is certainly interesting that the Women for Independence campaign appears to be trying to sell a rather softer message in a quieter style than the one that often emerges from the nationalist camp. The campaign emphasises its willingness to listen, a dislike of ya-boo male dominated politics, and the opportunity that independence might afford for a caring, more equal society.
What, however, remains to be seen is whether it will succeed in being heard in what in other well publicised fora is already proving to be a rather raucous and illtempered debate.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University