The Scottish referendum vote was supposed to be “once in a generation”. But how long is that?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
April 10, 2017, 11:53 AM GMT+0

Most Scots won’t consider a generation to have passed until 2039

This article originally appeared in The Times Red Box

A few days before the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, then-First Minister Alex Salmond said that the vote was a “once in a generation opportunity”. Yet just two and a half years after Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of holding a second referendum.

Salmond has since dismissed the comment as a personal view rather than party policy, and in any case his successor Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that a significant and material change in circumstances – i.e. Britain voting to leave the EU – justify a second ballot. But the phrase is still being used by their enemies as a stick with which to beat the SNP: only last month did Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, tried to hold Scotland’s ruling party to the “once in a generation” standard in a speech in the Scottish Parliament.

But assuming that the Brexit vote hadn’t intervened – or that Theresa May successfully quashes calls for a second vote – at what point could a second Scottish independence referendum be held under the “once in a generation” logic?

The generation game

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a generation as: “the average period in which children grow up and have children of their own (usually considered to be about thirty years)”.

The public, however, is much more likely to put the figure at 20 or 25 years. Overall 41% of Brits believe a generation lasts 20 or 25 years, compared to 14% for 30 years, while a further 12% think it lasts ten years.

A separate survey that only asked Scots this question found much the same results – 39% think a generation is 20 or 25 years, 13% say 30 years and 10% say 10 years.

This Scottish survey did, however, reveal some significant differences between Scots on either side of the independence debate.

Whilst 20 and 25 years were still the most common answers given by both sides, Yes voters were much more likely than No voters to say that a generation lasts fewer than 20 years (28%, compared to 14% of No voters) – although only 2% of Yes voters consider a generation to have passed already.

No voters were likewise more likely to say that a generation lasts from 20 to 30 years (59%, compared to 46% of Yes voters).

Looking at the responses cumulatively, the point at which the majority of Scots say that a generation has passed is 25 years (this is true of both Yes and No voters). If we follow the “once in a generation” logic, these results would dictate that the next Scottish independence referendum be held in 2039.

Photo: PA

See the full results for Great Britain and Scotland only