Young or old

I have a good deal of time for Politics Scot. Tonight he tweeted this (

In this regard, he is doing little more than repeating a widely held point of view – that it was the older generation that lost us the last referendum and could cost us the next one. In terms of relative vote, it is hard to argue with that. The issue, though is less how we lost the last one, and more how we win the next one, and what I want to argue is that focusing on the group that did most to cost us the last referendum might be quite the wrong way of setting about it.

The highlighted figures in the table, show the degree of resistance among the over 55s of practically every party (other than the SNP of course) to voting Yes next time. Therefore, the argument goes, we should be focusing on convincing the over 55s to vote for Yes.

The widely held view is that to be young is to be liberal, but old is to be conservative- or to be young to support Yes, but old to vote No. These figures support that thesis.

However, American research reported here ( suggests that while different age groups do have different political ideas, the young=liberal, old=conservative view does not always work. For instance, they show that those aged over 65 are pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

The classic quote on age and attitude is by François Guizot, who said, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” But it has been shown by Alwin, Cohen and Newcomb in “Political Attitudes Over the Lifespan” ( that “through late childhood and early adolescence, attitudes are relatively malleable…with the potential for dramatic change possible in late adolescence or early adulthood. [B]ut greater stability sets in at some early point, and attitudes tend to be increasingly persistent as people age.” In other words, while Guizot may have been correct about ages between 20 and 30, the argument should not be extended further – at some point our political views become relatively fixed.

Ghitza and Gelman show in “The Great Society: Reagan’s Revolution and Generations of Presidential Voting” ( that there exist in the US different political generations, each shaped by political events during their formative years: New Deal Democrats, Eisenhower Republicans, Baby Boomers, Reagan Conservatives and Millennials.

Now if we apply these ideas to the next independence referendum it may give us cause to think that the widely held nostrum – well expressed by Politics Scot – that we need to get the older generation onboard – just might not be as true as we might think it to be.

First of all, if attitudes at some point during adulthood become relatively fixed – or demonstrate a greater stability – then it will be the older generations who will be harder to get to change their minds. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, while this might not be for those in the earlier stages of 55+ age group, anyone who is 70 or older grew up in a world where the United Kingdom and Great Britain actually meant something. It was a world where to say that the sun never set on the British Empire was actually true. It was a country which had stood alone against Hitler and been one of the allies that had defeated him. As Maurice Smith put it in a recent Newsnet podcast, “people who have grown up watching John Mills’ movies”. ( This was the crucible in which their ideas were formed, and the idea of bringing that United Kingdom to an end will often be relatively more difficult than for younger age groups who have lived through a period of pretty continuous decline.

So if they are not to be targeted then who? If we go back to the figures in the table, then we can see that to secure a majority can be achieved in either (or both) of two ways.

If, as is common for opinion polls, we rule out the undecideds, then a majority could be secured by getting at minimum 29 No voters to turn to yes, nearly 6%. Where would that 6% come from? If we rule out the over 55s as ‘too difficult’ then it has to be from younger age groups. There are 239 No voters aged less than 55, so 29 of them would be 12%, from any party but less likely to be Conservatives, where the balance between Yes and No is more marked than even for SNP voters voting Yes.

Moreover, particularly among the youngest age group – 16-34 (where ideas are more malleable!) – the balance for Yes is particularly pronounced (55% Yes to 32% No). If political ideas are influenced – among this younger, more malleable group – by their peers then perhaps it is most likely that converts would be secured here rather than among the elderly as Politics Scot suggests.

But there is another group we have ignored so far – those characterised as undecided. Typically, these are either excluded from the final result, or it is assumed that they will allocate themselves in the same proportions as those who have made their mind up already. There are 73 aged less than 55 in the undecided category. For this group to push Yes to a majority. To take the Yes vote (440) above the No vote (497) would require nearly 80% of this undecided group to come across, so it is at best difficult, and probably unlikely that even persuading younger undecideds to vote Yes is going to secure a Yes vote. More likely that some combination of securing currently undecided votes and converting No votes to Yes, particularly among young voters, will be the way forward.

Therefore, if the view that our opinions do not usually change significantly with age are correct, then the more productive approach to secure a Yes majority might be, counterintuitively, not to focus on the group which relatively cost us the last referendum – older voters whose opinions were formed in a rather different United Kingdom – but to work harder to secure the votes of existing No votes among younger voters whose opinions are more receptive to new ideas, whose conversion might be relatively easier.

6 thoughts on “Young or old

  1. Another demographic to persuade seems to be the English immigrants (of whom I’m one). I read somewhere that a majority of native Scots voted Yes in 2014 but that the incomers and in particular, we English tipped it in favour of No. In his book ‘The Shepherds Life’, James Rebanks writes eloquently and bluntly about how ‘incomers’ to the Lake District have commandeered the high ground of what constitutes good environmental practice. In doing so Rebanks asserts that it’s as if the indigenous population of hill farmers are almost invisible. Yet, he argues, it’s they who over centuries have created the environment and habitat, the stone walls and beautiful vernacular architecture that the (mostly middle class) incomers swoon over. I think there are parallels with Scotland here, that it’s native Scots who over the centuries have not only created the environment that so many tourists flock to see but also the rich history, culture and industries that have shaped Scotland. While many English are no doubt economic migrants, there are I know, many who have chosen to live in Scotland for environmental and cultural reasons and we perhaps need to be more sensitive to how the things that attracted us to come to Scotland in the first place, were created and in doing so, to pay more attention to the wishes of those who created it.


  2. thanks for taking the time to reply.
    Coincidentally, I was having lunch yesterday with a former colleague. John, like you, is originally from England, though he has lived up here for nearly 40 years now, so certainly someone who has not only lived here for purely economic reasons because I am sure he could have gone back to England any time he wanted. I have known him for all of those 40 years, and tbh the main times I thought of him being from England was at times like the World Cup – like when he told me that when Gareth Soutgate missed the penalty in the shoot out in the 1990 World Cup, he and his wife groaned, but their two boys (one born in England but too young to remember being there) both cheered.
    In 2014, he said that he voted only with his head, and not with his heart and his head as he felt many Scots did. He voted No, because he was not convinced by the case being made in the WP – too many uncertainties he felt and didnt want to take the chance (while he is retired now, he has no intention of moving back)..
    Inevitably we got on to the EU vote and he said that while he was not yet a Yes voter he – and his wife (also English) – were “open to being persuaded”, being horrified by the outcome of the EU vote and what it indicates about England (confirmed for him from their many relatives down there, some equally horrified, while others are very pleased to “get their country back” as they see it). He is also quite clear that he considers Scottish independence in the next few years to be pretty much inevitable.
    I think the key words here are “open to being persuaded”. Selling Yes is like selling any other product or service. People will buy a product for a whole range of different reasons, and the message has to be modulated to suit each of the categories in that range. to be able to convince the range without it becoming confused or internally inconsistent. But at the same time, you dont try to sell it to people who would not be interested in buying it, or could only be sold it with some difficulty. Getting people to Yes is much the same thing, and it just seems to me that it would be better to start with the easier hits, like younger people and migrants generally.


  3. If you start on the premise of wanting the over 55+ demographic to switch to Yes, then I would suggest you reconsider your stated position. ‘Selling Yes is like selling any other product or service.’

    No, I don’t think it is. There are deep cultural undercurrents that lie beneath the surface of this group, some of them probably so entrenched as to be unreachable. The over 55+’s won’t change their views as key issues that inform their perception of political life in Scotland are fixed. Religious opinion; perceived competence of the political class (the SG in particular) in Holyrood; the idiosyncrasies of the current First Minister and her cabinet; the day to day events that show our performance in Education, Health, Crime and our Policing policies, taxation etc., are seen relative to rUK. All effect their vote placement directly.

    The author’s opinion that in some way ‘This was the crucible in which their ideas were formed, and the idea of bringing that United Kingdom to an end…’ tells its own tale.

    A narrative such as this is so far removed from objective reality as to be suitable for placement under the category of ‘Armchair Unicorn Fantasist’. How can the fifth largest economy (by GDP, and next year to be 4th) be regarded in such a parochial manner, unless by a commentator touched by fairy dust or similar?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this, but as you might expect I dont agree with you.

      I think you rather miss my point. I do after all focus more on the older end of 55+ – those who grew up watching John Mills movies. I was having lunch shortly before the first referendum with one of my former Profs (also retired, now about 75), who is an Economist. I knew Alistair would vote No from our dealings in the past, but I asked him anyway how he was going to vote, and sure enough he said he was voting No,. and, expecting a learned Economic rationale in reply, I asked him why. Somewhat to my surprise, he said “because I feel British”. I could have argued him up hill and down dale had I got the economics based reply. But how do you argue with someone about their sense of identity?

      The idea of bringing the UK to an end, I assume from your comment, might seem unimportant to you (and tbh does not bother me one bit) but for others is destroying an important parf of their identity.

      Moreover, whether “day to day events that show our performance in Education, Health, Crime and our Policing policies, taxation etc., are seen relative to rUK” will affect their vote I think is doubtful.

      First of all the reality is that this is hardly reflected in the msm, and internet access is less among older groups so the sources that we might rely on are probably not known by them. But much more important is not whether an issue – govt performance on particular matters, independence, leaving the UK – is important, but HOW important relative to each other. It is not illogical to think our hospitals are run better and still be against independence. Why not just stick with devolution and keep the UK and still be British?

      One last comment. I am not suggesting that all of the over 55s are a lost cause. I do write after all – and you quote part of it
      “First of all, if attitudes at some point during adulthood become relatively fixed – or demonstrate a greater stability – then it will be the older generations who will be harder to get to change their minds. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, while this might not be for those in the earlier stages of 55+ age group, anyone who is 70 or older grew up in a world where the United Kingdom and Great Britain actually meant something. It was a world where to say that the sun never set on the British Empire was actually true. It was a country which had stood alone against Hitler and been one of the allies that had defeated him. As Maurice Smith put it in a recent Newsnet podcast, “people who have grown up watching John Mills’ movies””

      So what I am arguing is that there is a good deal of the over 55s (the older part in the main) who really are beyond reach, because its not about economic or govt competence, but about identity, and I dont think you can do much about that. It just IS. If so, would it not be better to focus on those where ideas might yet be changed, which is among the younger age groups? Your tweet it seems to me focuses on the 55+ age group because more of them voted No than among younger age groups, which is observably true. But is it not better to focus on those whose minds can be changed most easily. If those in the 55+ age group cannot be easily changed – and I would actually prefer if we thought of the 65-70+ age group – is it not better to use our time and effort on changing the more easily changed minds, no matter what age they might be? I dont know if you are familiar with the Serenity prayer –
      “God grant me the serenity
      To accept the things I cannot change;
      Courage to change the things I can;
      And wisdom to know the difference”.
      We need to identify those minds we can change, but accept that there are some we cannot for some fairly fundamental reasons. But we also need the wisdom to tell the difference. Looking at some numbers really does not do that.
      I hope you can at least understand, if not accept that argument. However, i rather suspect not, a view driven largely by your final paragraph which I find on the one hand extremely bizarre (the ref to relative GDP), but also your personal comments which are about as inaccurate as they are offensive. You might be unhappy that someone has disagreed with you, but really disagreement and refinement of argument is the way forward.

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      1. When an individual offers up a personal subsumption that betrays a set of ideas that fail to reflect the narrative of our current state of play, there’s a need for balance.

        We are no longer a colonial power and Kipling is dead and buried. Referring to the author’s understanding that ‘It was a world where to say that the sun never set on the British Empire was actually true’ suggests by implication our modern society within the UK cannot continue to evolve (and Scotland’s place within it).

        Many who wish for a separation from the Union betray an ignorance of human nature. This is usually described under the heading of ‘Project Fear’ and is offered as an excuse for non-Separatists electing not to jump off a metaphorical economic cliff, imagined or real. Some rabble rousers seem determined to lead a procession of lemmings to their fate, including themselves. The pretext for this mass existential suicide is freeing Scotland from the perceived shackles that restrain our nation from its glorious future. Our extraordinary heritage within the Union is ignored, the Scottish Enlightenment displaced and substituted by perceived injustices inflicted on our Jacobean ancestors.

        The Nationalists set out a plan ironically titled Scotland’s Future and published with great fanfare y Alex Salmond and his understudy Nicola Sturgeon. This rather large book promised to identify our fiscal future in detail. That its contents became deeply flawed even as it was published, seems to have been excused by SNP supporters who have gone to great lengths to excuse its failings. Reading it over must still be an embarrassment for its authors, such was the extent of is miscalculations.

        The present heated debate between the Brexiteers (including the 27% within the SNP that want to leave the EU) and the Remain group, including myself, rages on. This debate however is almost insignificant in its complexity and cost compared with the disconnect required were our country to separate from the UK.

        John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research, observes the following.

        ‘If we look at the five most recent polls of EU referendum voting intentions, all of them undertaken at or around the time of May’s Scottish Parliament elections, we find that nationalist supporters are no more united on the issue than Scots as a whole.

        On average in these five polls, two thirds (67%) of all respondents said they would vote for Remain, one-third (33%) for Leave (leaving aside Don’t Knows). The figures for those who said they voted for the SNP a year ago (that is, in the 2015 UK general election) are almost identical. Support for Remain stood at 66%, while 34% said they would vote to Leave. Far from providing a more or less united block of voters for Remain, SNP supporters are a mirror image of Scotland as a whole – more in favour of Remain than Leave but still heavily divided. Despite their party’s stance on the issue, it looks as though for some nationalists at least, membership of the European Union is regarded an undesirable limitation upon the country’s sovereignty.’

        One possible reason for their decision may well be the rise of far right parties in EU member states. In addition there is the behaviour of Brussels towards Greece and Portugal who have been subjected to continued austerity measures, even when clearly unable to meet the demands of the larger more affluent EU nations. Do we want to be governed by unelected bureaucrats who have a taste for punitive retribution for weaker economies incapable of responding to their unreasonable demands?

        In finishing, I do recall the soothing words within the Serenity prayer. I also enjoy reading the widely appreciated aphorism Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann.

        ‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

        As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
        Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
        even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.’

        He concludes.

        ‘Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
        And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
        keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
        it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.’

        We must hope that we can find happiness even our Greek and Portuguese neighbours) irrespective of the course our political class set for us. They do seem to be setting sail anticipating turbulent waters. One wonders if we shouldn’t consider exchanging our ship for a decorative Zeppelin or Hot Air Balloon and seek out serene, windless blue sky.


  4. The first paragraph is your opinion, which is your privilege but others dont have to share it.
    You are dead right, we are no longer a colonial power and Kipling is dead and buried, but that is not to say that memories of that time and that kind of frame of mind do not still exist in the minds and perceptions of at least some. In fact, its not just about when the UK was a colonial power, but about the perception of who we are (as individuals). Some consider themselves to be Brits – THAT is a significant part of their identity, and asking them to vote to end the UK is almost in some cases like asking them to vote themselves out of existence. If we take my own age group (I will be 65 next year) the Empire on which the sun never set was stuck up on the wall of our Primary School classroom.
    When I was teaching, one of the points I made to students was that organizations (one of the things I taught was organization theory) can be wilful and do what they want to do, irrespective of what they ought rationally and in the light of the evidence, to do. The same thing is true of individuals. I am quite convinced of the economic case for independence – I came to that about 40 years ago when I was at University – but were I of the mindset of the older people I referred to – the John Mills fan club for instance – its not about convincing them of the economic case (which is why its so difficult to change their minds) but about their identity. I cant remember who it was who said it, but there are some who would vote for independence even if it was to Scotland’s economic detriment. That same point can be made to the other side – there are some Unionists who will vote No even if it is to Scotland’s economic detriment because they value the Union, and Britishness so highly.
    Let me try to make the point both succinctly and clearly. There are some among the Scottish electorate who are beyond the reach of Yes because their identity is based on being British (which might well mean different things to different people). I suspect there will be a larger proportion of these as we move through the age groups. If this is true, then it makes more sense to focus on groups who can (or can more easily) be reached by objective arguments in favour of independence.
    In this regard I do not have to take the view that Scotland has to be freed “from the perceived shackles that restrain our nation from its glorious future.” – I can quite happily be of the view that independent Scotland can develop economic policies that are more suited to our economic needs than those we labour under just now. This was how I came to the view that we needed economic independence 40 years ago. Back then, the govt would reduce tax to increase aggregate demand in the economy, but then two things happened. First of all the balance of payments got worse (seems to me now that no one gives a toss about the BoP) and secondly there was wage inflation. But that wage inflation took place mainly in the south east and the midlands – by this time the Scottish labour market was just getting going when the govt called time, and put taxes back up. In any event the midlands and south east economies were much more oriented to consumption goods – cars, white goods etc – while the Scottish economy had a greater emphasis on investment goods – ships, steel etc. I should maybe add here that one other who took a similar view was none other than George Younger who, while not going as far as arguing for independence, took the view that Scotland needed a different taxation regime for its economic needs. I thought then, and still think, that we need more than different taxes, and were unlikely to get any of this (Younger was unsuccessful) without independence.
    The EU is indeed a divisive issue, but set against the SNP members who voted to Leave are those who voted No last time, but are so appalled by Brexit that they might vote Yes this time. Nor indeed is it safe to come to the conclusion that someone who voted Leave, even with the remain in the EU policy in the next WP that they will not vote Yes. For instance issues have to be prioritised – basically which is more important. Is it for Scotland to be independent even if its in the EU? Or are they so against the EU that they will vote No because an independent Scotland would be in the EU, but as part of the UK we will not. Bothe are perfectly logical positions. How would Alex Neill approach that question? Maybe one day someone will ask him?
    Like you I voted Remain, but with a heavy heart not only for their treatment of Greece (in particular) and Portugal, but because of the neo-liberal paradigm on which it has become increasingly based in the last 10-15 years. I wonder how many Remain voters did so in the hope/ expectation that the Union can yet be reformed?
    Desiderata is a fine piece of work, but Ehrmann never had to deal with Twitter.

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