‘Emotive nationalism’ does not explain Scotland’s young ‘Yes’ voters

The independence referendum of 2014 granted 16 and 17 year old Scots the right to vote in a nationwide contest for the first time, with the increased political engagement of young people proving to be one of the key positives to come out of the election. Here, Maddie Breeze, Hugo Gorringe, Lynn Jamieson and Michael Rosie look at the attitudes of those 16 and 17 year olds who voted ‘Yes’, finding that their views can’t be explained by ’emotive nationalism’.

This post originally appeared on Democratic Audit – Scotland.

In less than a decade, Scotland has seen SNP governments elected in 2007 and 2011, the surprisingly close independence referendum of 2014, and the hitherto unimaginable SNP gains in the UK general election of 2015. Commentators have looked to nationalism and in particular to ‘the emotive rhetoric of Salmond’s “civic nationalism”’ to explain, and criticize, these turns in Scottish politics. In such accounts ‘nationalism’ denotes “dangerous and powerful passions… extraordinary emotions”. Whilst this interpretation is widespread and intuitive, it is refuted by survey evidence and is complicated by sociologies of nationalism and national identity.

What then explains the unprecedented levels of turnout, and the passions inspired by the Independence Referendum? One key factor was that the 2014 independence referendum allowed 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland the opportunity to vote on a major political issue for the first time, which seemed to engender an extraordinary degree of youth engagement (as Graeme Baxter and colleagues have previously reported for Democratic Audit – Scotland). We conducted an interview study with ten 16–20 year old Yes voters in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh between the referendum and the 2015 general election. Research participants spontaneously raised the issue of ‘nationalism’ in ways that challenged assumptions about its relationship to both political participation and recent events in Scottish politics.

Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted in three Scottish cities during March and April 2015 with respondents aged between 16 and 20.All had voted Yes to independence, and for all but one the referendum was the first time they had voted. Interviewees were recruited via an online call for participants, circulated on social networking sites and through the networks and key contacts of youth work organizations and political associations. The target cities were chosen for their ‘Yes city’ status (Dundee and Glasgow) and majority No vote (Edinburgh) respectively.

Questions focused on respondents’ involvement in the referendum and on their participation in various forms of politics before and since. The research design incorporated a broad definition of ‘politics’, and allowed respondents to discuss the issues they cared about and arrive at their own understandings of what counted as ‘political’.

I’m not a nationalist, but…

Participants repeatedly made it clear that voting for independence, and their politics more broadly, were driven by neither ‘nationalist’ sentiment nor national identity:

Russell: I think a lot of people on the No side think that, you know, we were all kind of raving nationalists, but actually we were just trying to democratically change the way that our country is run you know?

Russell’s invocation of ‘our country’ reminds us that ‘nationalism’ need not be of an explicit flag waving kind, but can be more about the routine assumptions about the world and ‘our’ place within it. Russell, like many people we spoke to, distances himself from a particular kind of nationalism, the ‘raving’ kind, whilst simultaneously engaging in a more ‘banal’ form of nationalist rhetoric.

Leading by example

For many the decision to vote Yes was inspired by a commitment to social justice situated within a much wider geo-political context than just Scotland:

Gregg: This society that we live in is incredibly unequal and we need to do something about it, and that was at the heart of why I wanted Scotland to be independent… I think there is a platform to be progressive within that. . . I think that an independent Scotland is a progressive force, and the English left can take inspiration, from that.

Brian: . . . it wasn’t so much about being an independent country, it was more about for me, I don’t know how this will sound, but it was more about breaking up the current system. . . and showing the world really, that positive change can be done, it’s possible to look after your own poor neighbourhoods and everybody, and have a political system that’s geared towards that kind of thing.

In this sense, in contrast to many media reports, many Yes voters saw themselves as much as internationalists as nationalists.

I am a Nationalist, but…

This is not to say that nationalist sentiment was entirely absent: Both Fiona and James explicitly identified themselves as ‘Nationalists’, here expressly meaning supporting the SNP. In Fiona’s case she distinguished herself from a group of ‘socialists’ in her area also campaigning for Yes, while James described becoming ‘a Scottish Nationalist without really realizing’, through discovering Scottish history, otherwise relatively absent from the school curriculum. Between the poles of those who distanced themselves from the term ‘nationalism’ and those who described themselves as Nationalists (usually denoting SNP membership or support) was a blurry spectrum where narratives of social justice blended with ideas of national identity, and where conceptions of ‘the left’ overlapped with those of ‘the nation’.

Mike: . . . my reasons for voting Yes changed, ‘cause like I say, I was bought up in a very Nationalist family. So when it was first announced it was like, well I’m voting Yes, I think Scotland should be independent. ‘Why do you think Scotland should be independent?’, well it just should, was kinda like, my only argument at the start. But then … I got more politically involved… I saw not that Yes was gonna be a miracle and change everything, but that it would open so many more doors to allow change. If we wished to campaign on those issues, it would make it much more easier to, so coming from a very socialist, like I mean even though my family are SNP, they still have left wing values . . . I’ve joined the Scottish Socialist Party, that obviously shows I’ve got left wing values, I think Yes was a way to get these values actually, ‘cause I don’t think we’re going to do it in the right wing United Kingdom that we have at the minute, with the rise of UKIP and stuff like that.


Questions of nation, national identity and nationalism bled into social justice motivations for an independent Scotland.

Some explicitly distanced themselves from nationalist sentiment. Others shared a concern with social justice but expressed it as overlapping with a national(ist) identity in complex ways. While disavowals of ‘romantic’, ‘narrow’ or ‘emotional’ Scottish nationalism occur on both sides of the independence debate, this study points to how more banal, and nuanced discourses of national(ist) identity underpin respondents’ explanations for voting Yes. Young people identified, and were self-reflexive and critical of, different forms of nationalism in their accounts of their participation in Scottish and UK politics. While ideas of nation and national(ist) identity do play a role in these young people’s political attitudes and engagement – they do not do so in the sensationalist or simplistic way that some accounts might have it.

Our interviewees articulated nuanced and tempered accounts that recognized the importance of working together, and offered more grounded and hopeful accounts. These see a future inspired not by ‘raving’ or ‘romantic’ emotive nationalism, but by a desire for a just and equal Scotland.

Note: All names cited in this artlce are psuedonyms. This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit – Scotland or or any organisation associated with it. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Maddie Breeze is a Lecturer in Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University

Hugo Gorringe is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh

Lynn Jamieson is Professor of Sociology of Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh

Michael Rosie is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh

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