Political Engagement and the Scottish Referendum: Supply or Demand Explanations?

Alan Convery, Malcolm Harvey

Research output: Contribution to conferenceUnpublished paper

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Scholars of British politics agree that there has been a decline in formal political participation but disagree about its causes. On the one hand, some scholars cite ‘demand’ factors. Flinders argues that citizens need to modify their expectations about what politics can achieve and stop thinking the worst of politicians. Others, such as Hay and Richards, think the problem is based on ‘supply’: the inadequacy of the type of politics on offer. This paper uses the Scottish independence referendum as a test of these two competing explanations. The referendum campaign involved high levels of political engagement and resulted in an 85% turnout – a turnout considerably higher than recent elections to the UK (65%) and Scottish (50%)Parliaments. Does this offer lessons for the rest of the UK or was this a one-off event based on unique circumstances? Did the referendum process create overly high expectations about what can be achieved in terms of public involvement in a representative democracy like Scotland and the UK? For elections where salience is lower and the questions are more complicated, it is not clear that the high level of turnout seen in the referendum can be maintained. If large numbers of citizens feel their participation matters only in the context of referendums rather than elections, then this has implications for the quality of democracy. We conclude that the terms of political ‘supply’ changed, but also that people demanded information beyond that provided by the parties. Overall, this highlights the tension between a ‘clean’ referendum result and the messiness of representative politics mediated through parties.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventPolitical Studies Association (2015) - Sheffield, United Kingdom
Duration: 24 Mar 201527 Mar 2015


ConferencePolitical Studies Association (2015)
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Scotland
  • referendum
  • anti-politics
  • participation
  • expectations gap


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