Peter Flynn takes us through the factors involved in voting for, or against, Scottish independence.
The SNP have announced that their ‘Yes’ campaign on the referendum on Scotland’s future is to begin, officially, from May. With a campaign chest boosted by two recent donations of a million pounds apiece – from a lottery winner and a poet – their hopes are high. Their campaign has been carefully planned, and will be impressively organised. However, there is little reason why their opponents should struggle to muster support, unite, and fight a strong case for staying in the UK.
On first sight, Scottish Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats have a lot of catching up to do: they have each been working on their own individual campaigns on the referendum, and will need to join forces in order to put up an effective opposition to Alex Salmond. If they appear divided they will weaken the coherence of their message, and if they each fight their own campaign in defence of the UK, then they may be easy for the SNP to pick off, one at a time.
However, the SNP campaign has still not officially started and with all of the Scottish party conferences out of the way there is now time for the other parties to figure out how best to coordinate. The traditional differences that ought to separate them are, in this instance, largely irrelevant: they are all united around support for the UK. In addition, the Conservatives and Lib Dems are in coalition in Westminster, and Labour and the Lib Dems shared two terms in government together in Scotland too. So, the basis of a working partnership is there. In fact, bipartisanship might do them all some favours with the electorate, by making them look more collegiate.
Their campaign will look more open and inclusive from the very beginning, if they are able to unite in this way. By contrast the SNP, fighting a campaign with support from no other major party, will be seen to be ‘going it alone’ just as they want Scotland to do. A ‘broad tent’ in favour of remaining in the UK should therefore be relatively easy to establish. Adding vocal support from people outside of politics – businesses, public figures and celebrities – will of course augment this.
The main problems are with infighting and Devo Max. Scottish Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories each have new leaders, who may be tempted to prove their political strength by trying to dominate the ‘No’ campaign. They may portray themselves as the natural leader, using rhetoric along the lines of ‘we speak up for the people of Scotland more than the other two parties, and therefore we should run this campaign.’ This would damage the cause, as it would be very easy to construe such a move as a power-grab, and evidence of division and infighting. The electorate would not be impressed.
The other major problem is with Devo Max. This option – still poorly defined – represents a real threat to a cross-party campaign. Obviously, each of the three parties is against independence and in favour of remaining in the UK, but if one, or two, of the parties opt to campaign for Devo Max, while the other takes a more reticent view on the issue, then once again the broad anti-independence, pro-UK bloc will appear divided. Since the common denominator of each of the three parties is that they are in favour of remaining in the UK, they should stick to campaigning, as one, for this first and foremost. Any suggestion of fracturing will be capitalised on by the SNP.
The Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives therefore each have a lot to gain by campaigning as one in the referendum campaign. The Yes to AV campaign, although unsuccessful, demonstrates that cross-party campaigns can indeed be formed, and a broad tent is appealing to the public. Appearing to put aside old differences to unite on an issue is a potential strength of the pro-UK campaign, and would make the SNP look isolated and insular if carried out successfully. However, the SNP’s disadvantages and the other parties’ advantages will be reversed if the pro-UK parties fail to unite successfully. The SNP, alone but single-minded and well-organised, could easily point to the other parties and criticise perceived infighting, fracturing, and division.
Aside from issues of organisation, the message will obviously be vital to get right. The day-to-day discourse around the economic merits of an independent Scotland versus one in the UK, or around the armed forces, diplomacy, the security services, foreign aid, EU membership, NATO membership, head of state, ownership of oil and gas fields, currency, the BBC and so on will no doubt fill millions of column inches, and be discussed ad nauseam in pubs across this country and others. The underlying thread, however, will be narrative: which side articulates the most positive case? It will be argued by the SNP that becoming independent will allow a whole new world of exciting possibilities for a newly energised people, and this all sounds very promising and optimistic. In these difficult times, if Alex Salmond is offering the Promised Land, many will want to follow him. The pro-UK side, therefore, must paint an equally positive picture: we have a union that has endured for three centuries, we are stronger together, it is a political bond that works and works for us all. The mantra of pro-UK politicians up to now has been ‘we’re stronger together, weaker apart.’ The focus in this campaign should definitely rest on the ‘stronger together’ half of that sound bite.
Of course, there will be negativity. It is a sad feature of human nature that people seem to slip into pessimistic or aggressive rhetoric when they are impassioned. Some SNP supporters will talk about ‘ending Westminster rule’ as though Scotland is an oppressed, Balkan state. Some pro-UK supporters may be accused of ‘talking Scotland down.’ Neither approach will win votes. People who respond to the most negative SNP rhetoric were probably always going to vote for independence – many are probably already members. Those who are sceptical of Scotland’s ability to thrive alone will support the pro-UK side instinctively.
This will be a contest of emotions, perhaps more than of precise nuts-and-bolts policy issues. The SNP will have worked out how they envisage an independent Scotland will operate, and will have plenty of pre-prepared responses to tricky questions, as would be expected. The pro-UK campaign will have to come up with sound reasons why remaining part of the UK is the best option. In a sense, this ought to be the easy part. Underneath, however, both sides should be racing to appear the most positive, the most up-beat, and the most confident that their option is the best for the people of Scotland. At its core, neither campaign will be about statistics, economics, or nuance; both campaigns will be striving to paint as positive a picture of their side of the argument as possible.
However, in focussing on the past and present benefits of being in the UK, the campaign may shoot itself in the foot, by being seen to focus too much on the past and present, rather than the future. The inherent advantage of the SNP in this respect is that, since an independent Scotland is a wholly imagined, abstract concept, they will always be envisioning, always be focussing on the future. The pro-UK campaign will therefore have to articulate a positive case for the union, which looks forward, not back. Both campaigns will be competing, in effect, to portray the most positive vision of Scotland’s future.
This is extremely important for both sides. A negative SNP campaign would play into the hands of those who want to portray them as narrow-minded, isolationist, insular, or even anti-English. A negative pro-UK campaign would be portrayed as presenting a stale old case for vested interests and an outmoded status quo. So both sides will be competing to be as positive as possible. The more a candidate in an election talks about the future, and the more optimistic a message the candidate has, the more likely he or she is to be successful. People tend to vote for the most positive campaign, the most uplifting message, the most optimistic vision for the future. Hopefully this means that the referendum campaign, on both sides, might just avoid the mud-slinging and cynicism that seems the trend in politics across the UK, exhibited at Prime Minister’s Questions and First Minister’s Questions. We will hopefully have a case study of positive campaigning in action, from both sides.
There is quite a lot of concern at the grass roots of pro-UK parties about how well-organised, well-funded and on-message the SNP ‘machine’ is in preparation for this referendum campaign. These nerves are understandable, not least because the SNP are supremely good at appearing confident and under control; a lesson the pro-UK campaigns will also have to take on board. However, at this stage the SNP have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to convince the electorate of the merits of their case. The latest UK polling report has support for independence at only 32%. In a three-option referendum, 33% support the status quo, 36% Devo Max and 24% independence outright. So, most people support remaining in the UK. The pro-UK campaign will have to appear united, and articulate a positive message, in order to maintain and grow this share of public opinion.
Other factors will obviously come into play: we have not talked about campaign spending limits, the personalities involved, and the inevitable gaffes and surprises that will crop up. ‘Events’ are practically impossible to foresee, and everyone knows what Robert Burns had to say about ‘The best-laid schemes’. While there is still uncertainty about the date of the referendum, who will be allowed to vote, how many questions there will be, what the wording will be, who will run the referendum, and so on, the fact is that people in Scotland – and perhaps Scots in the rest of the UK – will have voted by the end of 2014 on the future of their country. There is a lot of hype behind the SNP campaign, but the pro-UK parties have inherent advantages that they must capitalise on. If they do, and they are able to come together and articulate a wholly positive case for why Scotland should remain a part of the UK – and there are plenty of good reasons – then they will win.
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