Scottish independence betting: A gamblers' guide

Place your bets: Independence referendum is big business for political betters.
Place your bets: Independence referendum is big business for political betters.
Adam Bienkov By

"It's been huge. It's been way, way bigger than we anticipated. We're talking millions. Across the whole market we're talking tens of millions. It's been ginormous."

I'm talking to Matthew Shaddick, the man in charge of political betting for Ladbrokes, about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum.

The referendum will clearly be a huge day for the future of the UK, but it will also be a big day for the future of political betting. A day when this once minority pursuit comes of age.

"It's still early days. Typically we would expect at least 50% of all bets on an event like this to be placed in the last two weeks, but judging on current trends [these few weeks] are set to be bigger than the last general election period put together.

"It's probably going to be the biggest political betting event ever."

Some punters have more at stake than others. Last year Ladbrokes took a £200,000 bet on Scotland remaining in the UK. Other bookies have reported taking up to a £600,000 bet on the same result.

For confident punters willing to tie their money up for months or even years on end, the independence referendum has been a particularly attractive investment.

However, those investors may have suffered sleepless nights this week as new polls showed the 'yes' campaign within touching distance of victory. The findings, following the independence debates between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond appear to have caused a big shift in bets going on independence.

If those punters are right and Scotland does choose to go it alone, possibly by a large margin, then Ladbrokes will take a massive hit.

Shaddick, or 'Shadsy' as he's known affectionately among political betters, has described a 'Yes' victory of over 55% as the "nightmare scenario" for Ladbrokes.

"It would comfortably be the worst ever result for the company on a non-sports market," he adds.

Some independence campaigners believe the betting markets, currently predicting a 77% chance of Scotland remaining in the UK, have been distorted by large bets on 'No' from people living in England.

Shaddick admits there is some evidence of this. Around 75% of all English money placed on the market since the last independence debate has been on 'No' as opposed to around just 20% of Scottish money.

However, he's not convinced this means the market has been distorted. He wrote on his blog last week:

"Does that mean the betting markets are wrong and underestimating the true chance of a vote for independence and missing the real feeling on the ground? Maybe, but it's also perfectly plausible that people who have less emotional capital invested in the result are forming a more objective opinion on the likely outcome."

I ask him whether the bookies odds give a better indication of the result than the polls.

"In theory you would think the bookies would be more accurate," he says citing evidence of the accuracy of their odds at previous elections.

However, he says that punters appear to be acting more emotionally in this referendum than previously.

"Normally on events like this you would find money on elections would mirror the shifts in the polls whereas in this case we took a lot of money on 'Yes' even before the independence debates began.

"So it could be that the polls have not been picking up on the true feeling on the ground but there's also a very good chance that people are being blinded by anecdote and posters in windows and that kind of thing."

Shaddick appears confident that the latter is the case. Asked to predict the final result, he confidently suggests a substantial victory for 'No'.

"My own feeling is that it tends to be the case historically that undecideds in referendums will always break for the status quo.

"So the fact that 'No' is already ahead, and bearing in mind that historical trend, it suggests me that 'No' is still the strong favourite and will probably win by about six or seven points.

He pauses.

"But there is still a fair amount of uncertainty there."

And it is that uncertainty which means there is still a lot of money to be made on the independence result.

The rise of services like Betfair's betting market, where punters bet on shifts in the market, means that punters can still win a bet even before Scots go to the polls.

Mike Smithson of leading website Politicalbetting.com, has been a long-term advocate of these types of markets and claims to have made a healthy profit over the recent surge of bets on 'Yes'.

'Betting on the betting' is still very much a minority pursuit but there are other markets which will attract less seasoned gamblers.

Some bookies are offering bets on the scale of the 'No' victory while others are even offering bets on which part of the country will have the biggest majority for 'yes'.

These kinds of bets still remain a niche. For most punters, the Scottish independence referendum will be a straight choice between yes and no. And like the referendum itself, where a huge turnout is predicted, many Scots will be going to the bookies for the first and possibly last time.

But for many others, political betting is becoming a regular and even respectable practice, attracting the kind of punters that horse races and the football pools have previously failed to grasp.

Bookies and political betters have long claimed their market is a far better indicator of election results than the musings of pundits or even the vagaries of polls. Money talks, whereas everything else walks, goes the theory.

With the gap in those polls closing fast, this month's independence referendum will be the biggest test of it yet.

Comments

Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.

Newsletter update
wa