University of Edinburgh hosts IndyRef post-mortem

The Moray House School of Education at The University of Edinburgh played host to a wide-ranging panel on the independence referendum outcome last Friday (September 19.)

The panel was chaired by Professor Charlie Jeffery of The University of Edinburgh. The four other panelists were Professors David Bell of The University of Stirling, Michael Keating of The University of Aberdeen, and Ailsa Henderson and Nicola McEwen, both of The University of Edinburgh.

The panel, which concluded less than an hour before First Minister Alex Salmond announced that he would stand down, focused little on the ‘No’ outcome’s impact on the credibility of the Scottish National Party (SNP), instead going into great detail on the feasibility of following through on the newly-announced timetable for devolving various powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Westminster had announced a pledge to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament in the wake of a YouGov poll finding support for ‘Yes’ exceeding that of ‘No’. Prof. Jeffery condemned the pledge as “improvised”, “ill-thought out”, and “incoherent”.

A member of the press asked the panel: “Do you think the timetable can be achieved?” After a brief pause, Prof. McEwen responded, simply, “No”, to laughter from the audience.

Prof. Keating added, “The deadline [for constitutional changes to the Scottish Parliament] cannot be met, and should not be met.”

Members of the press also posed several more eccentric questions to the panel. A Spanish journalist asked the panel: “Do you think the government should do anything to make Scots love the Union more?”

Prof. McEwen responded: “I think any effort by the UK government to make people feel more British would likely backfire,” to more laughs from the audience.

The panelists also touched on the unreliability of some polls of likely voters, particularly a YouGov poll that put the ‘Yes’ vote at 51 per cent. The panelists generally agreed that, in fact, bookmakers’ betting odds were a more reliable indicator of the referendum outcome than were polls of likely voters.

Prof. McEwen said: “I must say, I was surprised by the size of the gap in support of the ‘Yes’ and support of the ‘No’.

“There’s a couple possible explanations. We can’t really know more until we get our hands on some of the data we’ve been collecting.

“One hypothesis is that many of the people who said they were undecided really weren’t undecided. They were that silent minority that were always intending to vote ‘No’ but just didn’t feel that it was appropriate to say it, or didn’t even want to believe it, possibly.”

Prof. Bell said that betting odds work because “people are putting their own money on the line […] the odds of ‘No’ winning never dropped lower than 60 per cent.”

After the panel had concluded, McEwen told The Student that, in fact, bookmakers’ odds were only truly representative of the referendum’s outcome if they included bets from the entire UK and were not split up by region; specifically, Scotland and the rest of the UK.

McEwen said: “My understanding is that [bookmakers] reset their odds based on where money is going, and so they look within the market to see where the money is going. But they treat the UK market as one whole market.

“And the English money was going to a ‘No’, and the Scottish money was actually going on a ‘Yes’, so because they were treating the UK as one big market, it looked like this massive amount of money was going on ‘No’ because England is so much bigger, and a comparatively small amount of money was going on ‘Yes’, and so as a result they thought a ‘No’ was much more likely, because that’s where the money was going, so they made it look like a ‘No’ vote was much more likely.

“Whereas if they had been setting the odds based on where the cash was going purely in Scotland, they might have had completely different odds, and people might have had different expectations about what the result would be like as well.”

Foreign journalists asked the panel questions about a possible federalisation of the UK, but the panelists unanimously dismissed any chance of such a change occurring.

Prof. Henderson said: “No […] I can’t see how that would work.”

Prof. Keating added: “We have come to call [federalisation] the ‘zombie proposal.’”

Nearer to the end of the panel, the experts discussed the role Gordon Brown played in the run-up to the referendum. While panellists said they were stuck by his now famous speech beseeching Scotland to remain united with the UK, they were less convinced by his policy proposals.

Prof. Keating said that “Gordon Brown is a very complicated person,” but that his policy prescriptions were “very strange indeed”.

He added that Brown was “almost trying to essentialise [Britishness and Scottish values]” and that he believed such a notion “belongs back in the 1950s.”

“Scotland has moved on [from Brown’s vision of Britishness] […] We are a multicultural society,” Keating said.

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