Today’s press is full of reports on the Glasgow University independence referendum, in which the vote went 62-38 against on a turnout variously reported as 11%, 12% and 13%. (To our considerable surprise, this dismal level of interest was in fact regarded as a triumph, and vastly above the usual amount of engagement with student politics.)
Fewer than 2,600 people voted – despite the ballot being held somewhere students had to go anyway – so the results are barely as authoritative as a typical opinion poll. They do suggest a couple of reasonably interesting things, though.
1. Glasgow is the Union’s powerbase.
Glasgow is the heart of Unionist darkness in Scotland. It’s the country’s centre of poverty and deprivation, presided over for decades by Labour politicians with a vested interest in keeping it that way. A Guardian report this week on child poverty in the UK revealed that seven of the ten constituencies in Scotland with the worst levels were to be found in Glasgow, and all represented by Labour MPs.
1st Glasgow North East - 43% – Willie Bain (Lab)
2nd Glasgow Central – 37% – Anas Sarwar (Lab)
3rd Glasgow East – 35% – Margaret Curran (Lab)
4th Glasgow North West – 32% – John Robertson (Lab)
5th Glasgow South West – 31% – Ian Davidson (Lab)
6th Glasgow North – 29% – Ann McKechin (Lab)
9th Glasgow South – 26% – Tom Harris (Lab)
(The others are Glenrothes, Dundee West and West Dunbartonshire, also all Labour.)
With the exception of Robertson, that’s a roll-call of some of Scottish Labour’s most prominent politicians. It’s vital for the party that such senior MPs have safe seats, and making poor people wealthier is not how you make a Labour seat safer. Glasgow is Labour’s core Scottish heartland, and it simply can’t afford for Glaswegians to have the luxury of thinking they could vote for anyone else.
If that seems like an appallingly cynical view, it is. But it’s also true – remember that Labour has enjoyed more or less uninterrupted dominion over Glasgow for the last 70 years, at every political level from local councils up to Westminster, and through a number of economic booms overseen by Labour governments. You’d have to assume it could have lifted Glasgow up if it really wanted to.
Yet the area has stubbornly remained Scotland’s poorest, home to some staggeringly horrific, scarcely-believable statistics. The people of Glasgow have reaped few rewards for their three generations of dogged faith.
2. The referendum will not be won (or lost) in Glasgow.
Last night on Twitter some people told us that there are parts of Scotland which are proportionately more pro-Union than Glasgow – the Borders and South Ayrshire were cited. That may or may not be true. But Glasgow is the Union’s citadel of power (even more so than London, where there are plenty of people – mostly Tories – who would be quietly very glad to see the Scottish Problem disappear forever).
It’s where Labour’s Scottish headquarters are, and where its darkest deeds are done. It’s where there’s a 40,000-strong Unionist rally every other week. Let there be no mistake about it – Glasgow is the enemy’s capital city.
It will, therefore, be an absolute miracle if Glasgow votes for independence. 38% is actually a stunningly good result there, coming just weeks after we were gleefully told by the No campaign and the entire media that support in the whole of Scotland was only 23%. But while every vote should be fought for and nowhere abandoned, it would be unwise for the Yes camp to predicate victory on winning a majority in Glasgow.
While it’s Scotland’s largest conurbation, 89% of the population lives elsewhere. The media knows this, which is why it successfully created a narrative at last year’s council elections that the benchmark of success or failure would be whether the SNP captured Glasgow City Council, a stupendously unlikely feat (the 2007 seat count had been 45-22 to Labour) that the Nats fell well short of, despite making some progress.
That enabled the subsequent painting of the elections as a “victory” for Labour, despite the fact that the SNP increased its vote share (winning the popular vote for the first time ever), increased its number of seats and increased its margin over Labour.
The forces of Unionism want to fight the battle in Glasgow because it’s their home turf. They want the independence movement to exhaust itself hurling itself against the battlements of their greatest stronghold, in the style of the Battle Of Verdun.
The German armies of WW1 had no intention or real hope of defeating the totemic French fortress cluster – they merely wanted the French to pour so many troops into its at-all-costs defence they’d be “bled white”, diverting them from more productive attacks in other parts of the front. We hope the lesson for YesScotland is obvious.
3. Ipsos-MORI might be onto something
Despite being held in Glasgow (and in particular a hotbed of Glasgow Labour – John Smith, Donald Dewar and Anas Sarwar all cut their political teeth at the University), and despite an extremely low turnout (something likely to favour the No side if replicated in 2014) the mock referendum returned a bigger Yes vote than any opinion poll of the last six months. It may indeed be the case, then, that young people are at the vanguard of the independence movement, and that can only be good news.
Yesterday was on the surface a comprehensive defeat for the Yes campaign. But the underlying trends present a far more interesting picture. For the record, this site’s prediction remains the same as it was last night – if we get 38% in Glasgow come the autumn of 2014, we’ll win.