This article deals with the variation in the demand for self-government in Scotland – as measured by the vote in the two referendums – between 1979, when devolution was rejected, and 1997, when devolution was endorsed. The existing literature mainly deals with each of the two referendums in isolation and does not offer an explicitly comparative analysis of them. However, implicit comparisons contained in analyses of the 1997 referendum tend to identify as the main cause of the variation the 'democratic deficit' created by Conservative rule between 1979 and 1997, which was consistently rejected in Scotland. I take issue with this explanation on theoretical and empirical grounds and advances an alternative account grounded in an explicit comparison of the two referendums. Based on a rationalist approach, the analysis presented here identifies three key elements in the voting dynamics at the two points in time – a gap between support for self-government and the actual vote in the referendum; an interaction effect between attitudes to devolution and to independence; and the role of the European context in shaping perceptions of independence. I argue that significant change in these three variables (rather than a 'democratic deficit') appear to have been the most important determinants of the different results of the two referendums.\u
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