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Messaging Around the Scottish Referendum: Facts, Values, and Everything in Between

Frank Spring - 18th September 2014
Fighting the Scottish referendum: Optimism and fantasy vs rationality and doubt

Frank Spring examines the two camps' strategies for fighting the Scottish referendum and draws lessons for progressives facing similar campaigns elsewhere. 

Scotland will go to the polls tody for a referendum on independence, the outcome of which is very much in doubt. Regardless of the result, the referendum campaign provides a powerful and salutary lesson for progressive politicians of every nationality.

The uncertainty surrounding this election is a surprise. Since the referendum was announced in 2013, the pro-independence Yes Campaign’s primary obstacle has been political inertia; the Acts of Union, which bound the Scottish and English Parliaments, are three hundred years old (the Union of Crowns, which placed Scotland and England under the same monarch but kept them separate states, is a century older still). Scots have been sending representatives to the British Parliament in Westminster since before the United States was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Old habits die hard.

The polls have reflected this, with the No Campaign (which goes by the name ‘Better Together’) enjoying double-digit leads through most of the election cycle and as recently as mid-August. The Yes Campaign, led by Scottish National Party leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, has not always been its own best friend. Elected to power in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, the SNP has advanced a case for independence that could charitably be described as intellectually incoherent.

The case for separation has, until recently, been rooted mainly in partisan politics. Scotland is a left-leaning place. The Labour Party dominated the first Scottish Parliament, elected in 1999, and governed until their near-total defeat in 2011, while most Scottish MPs sent to the UK Parliament in Westminster have been Labour or Liberal Democrat. In much of Scotland, the word ‘Tory’ is not far removed from an outright slur.

In consequence, much of the animus of the Yes Campaign stems from the UK’s national policy being set by a Conservative-led coalition government with whom most Scots profoundly disagree, an ugly echo of the Thatcher/Major years when Scotland voted Labour again and again and got eighteen years of Conservative government for its pains. The result, then, has been a campaign long on arguments rooted in policy and politics.

And what arguments they are. The Yes Campaign has promised independence from the United Kingdom and its Tory-led government, while declaring that Scotland can keep the Queen as its Head of State, the pound as its currency, and its membership in NATO and the European Union as its liaisons to the outside world.

Some of these promises are probably fair. Scotland could potentially remain in the Queen’s domain as part of the Commonwealth, much like Canada and Australia (raising the odd possibility of the Queen going ‘abroad’ to vacation at the Royal Residence in Balmoral). Scotland’s membership in the EU is also foreseeable.

But Scottish membership in NATO, or at least the notion of a quick and easy admission as a member state, is a fantasy. A number of NATO members have a vested interest in making sure that breakaway states don’t have a swift and smooth passage to membership—particularly Spain, with its Basque region.

The idea of retaining the pound, meanwhile, is prima facie ludicrous; the political parties of the British Parliament have categorically ruled out the idea of a currency union, in which Scotland could have a say in British monetary policy. This, apparently, is no matter to Salmond, who says they’ll keep the pound anyway. This would leave Scotland unable to regulate its own currency, a position of helpless dependency that Paul Krugman recently indicted as “dangerous” and “mind-boggling.”

And there are further, fundamental questions: about the direction of the Scottish economy when its (admittedly considerable) oil reserves run low, about what will happen to the billions of pounds of investment British (and primarily English) firms made in the country on the assumption of continued union, about the fate of Britain’s Scotland-based Trident nuclear submarine fleet, and so on. To these, the Yes Campaign has never marshalled a convincing answer.

Faced with the Yes Campaign’s incredible platform of ‘you can have everything that’s good about the union, and none of the bad,’ the Better Together camp proceeded to directly and energetically tear it to pieces.

That was their mistake.

The Better Together campaign is, understandably, run by progressives; most of its leadership and operatives are Labour, including its public champion, Alistair Darling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Blair Government. Born of a Scottish family in London, Darling has lived most of his life between Scotland and England, and serves as a living, breathing representative of the Scottish/English liberal tradition (the last two Labour Prime Ministers, Blair and Gordon Brown, are also Scottish born and educated, though only Brown identifies primarily as a Scot).

Darling and the rest of Better Together’s leadership are prone to a sin all too common amongst progressives: the desire to prevail over an opponent through reasoned argument. This is hardly irrational but consistently ineffective.

Ostentatiously faulty reasoning and huge gaps of logic act on progressives like a flapping cape on a bull; the natural response is to charge in with the full force of data and argument and gore the offending object until it stops twitching. The Better Together campaign has certainly charged in; Darling’s first question to Salmond in the first televised public debate on the referendum was about currency, and he hammered that essentially unanswerable point throughout that bout and the second. The Better Together campaign has, on the whole, done a thorough job of goring the Yes Campaign’s policy platform.

This rational impulse toward persuasion and argument contains a critical, fatal flaw: “here are the reasons that I am right” has within it an implicit “you are wrong, and let me explain why,” itself half a step from an outright declaration “I know better than you.” A more effective way to stir an opponent’s defiance cannot be imagined.

For their trouble, Better Together has seen the Yes Campaign surge in the last month. Polls in the last two weeks have varied from a narrow Yes lead of two percentage points to a close No lead of six, always with enough undecided voters to swing it either way. Widely dismissed as a decided issue just six weeks ago, the election is now too close to call.

This has occurred in the absence of any substantive rebuttal from the Yes Campaign to Better Together’s criticism of its platform, and concurrent with increased visibility of Scottish nationalism, which has introduced both a powerful element of identity-politics and a degree of tension into what had been a fairly staid political discourse. In a perhaps deeply predictable turn of events, a referendum on national independence is shaping up to be decided on issues other than dry policy differences.

Recent polling from the Guardian newspaper and the polling firm ICM on the motivation of voters from both sides bears out the importance of identity in this election; of No voters, 53% identified “feelings about the UK” as a critical reason for their decision (15% more than the next-most-cited reason, concerns over “public services and pensions”); on the Yes side, 51% cited a rejection of “Westminster’s style of politics,” and 41% cited “feelings about Scotland.” In spite of Better Together’s dire warnings about the economic consequences of independence, 40% of Yes voters cited “hopes for a prosperous future.”

This rejection of a distant and dysfunctional government, strong feelings of nationalism, and hope for the future is an incredibly heady brew. For all the incoherence and fantasy in the details of the Yes Campaign’s platform, its argument boils down to a single phrase familiar to all progressives: “Yes, we can.”

To this, the Better Together campaign has marshalled its resources behind a solid, supported, and weighty series of counterarguments that distil to “No, you can’t.” There is no clearer example of this than the Better Together campaign’s first television advertisement (UK law prohibits paid political advertisements, and instead grants limited and equal time to the major parties; there have so far been two political ads apiece in the referendum campaign as of this writing).

Better Together’s first ad, “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind,” features a visibly-tired Scottish housewife at a kitchen table giving voice to her worries about what an independence vote might mean and her suspicions about the Yes Campaign’s promises. It was derided as sexist, a concern that might have some merit but neglects the ad’s greater failing: it was fundamentally pessimistic and dispirited (not to say dispiriting). All this is a sharp contrast to the Yes campaign’s first ad, an ebullient piece called “’Yes’ means…” that outlines all the wondrous things an independent Scotland could accomplish.

That these ads ran during the beginning of No’s slide and Yes’s surge is not a coincidence. While the relationship is probably not directly causal, the ads are representative of the tenor of the two campaigns: Yes has been optimistic, defiant, and a bit fantastical; No has been doubtful, condemnatory, and rigidly rational. The results have been predictable; it turns out that people do not like to be flatly told what they and their country cannot do.

Sensing danger, the Better Together campaign has attempted a pivot. Added to its campaign surrogates’ talking points has been a promise of “devo-max” (the shortened name for “maximum devolution”), a vow that, should Scotland remain in the union, it will be granted the greatest extent of devolved power possible, effectively making all of its own domestic policy. Better Together’s second ad, “A Proud Nation,” attempts to establish a narrative by which Scotland is a confident partner in the United Kingdom.

These are steps in the right direction. They are also woefully overdue, and Better Together has struggled to make its pivot complete. Rather than fully embracing the new narrative, campaign surrogates, including Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (who, fairly or not, shoulders the lion’s share of responsibility for the outcome of this election), vowed to “nail the lies” of the Yes Campaign at a recent rally.

It is as if the Better Together campaign cannot believe the evidence of its own eyes and insists on believing that if it just reasons with voters a little more forcefully, if it can just make people understand how afraid they should be of independence, surely it will prevail.

In such circumstances, the promise of devo-max looks like a desperation move, rather than a considered and sincere offer to an aggrieved people, and the narrative of “A Proud Nation” is drowned out. This compounds the existing problem that, after months of humbugging the Yes Campaign’s message, Better Together might have lost permission to be heard at the exact moment that it finally came around, if only a little, on the idea of a more positive message and narrative.

The union might still survive, of course, saved by an asset the Better Together campaign effectively ignored throughout most of the election: the belief of many Scots that they are both Scottish and British, and that both identities, and the unity they convey, has value. Those are the 53% of self-identified ‘No’ voters who cite feelings about the UK has a central reason for their choice, and they are not alone.

It seems desperately unlikely, however, that the No camp will achieve the most critical victory: a win by a sufficient margin to put the issue of Scottish independence to rest permanently (or at least for the foreseeable future). One British political commentator put it quite bluntly: “if the result is a close one for ‘No’, Scotland does not get devo-max immediately, and there is not a Labour government [in Westminster] after the next general election, in the next five-to-ten years Scotland will have another referendum and leave the union.”

It need not have come to this. Instead of relying heavily on counter-arguments, however grounded and cogent they have been, the Better Together campaign should have done three things, all of which are central to a strong progressive response to political opposition.

First, acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition’s grievance. Politically-engaged progressives are prone to forgetting that most people do not want much politics in their lives; if a significant segment of voters are sufficiently agitated to seek politically redress, it is unlikely that they are doing so on a whim. Somewhere in their position is an anxiety that any politician must validate in order to have permission to be further heard.

There is a very compelling case that Scotland has not been well-served recently by the union; of the past thirty-five years, Scotland has been governed from Westminster by Conservative or Conservative-led governments that it has rejected consistently and wholeheartedly for twenty-two of them. The No campaign is in a difficult position because its coalition technically includes the Conservative Party; nonetheless, Labour leads that coalition, and is in a unique position to acknowledge the separation that has grown up between Scotland and London and, critically, to apologize for its role in creating that. This mea culpa, even in a limited form, has not been forthcoming.

Secondly, identify a resolution to the grievance. “We understand your frustration and anger, and the role we have played in them, and we are sorry. Here is what we propose to do about it.” An honest and humble position that presents the solution not as an argument to be won but an offering for the electorate to consider will gain the most traction, and a politician who credibly advances this position will never be shut out of the conversation.

Had the Better Together campaign begun with, “We understand that you have continually put your trust in Westminster, voting in good faith, and we have let you down. We are sorry. We understand that Scotland wants a government more accountable to its people; we therefore propose devo-max, which will further put Scotland’s present and future in the hands of its people,” this election would likely have a very different character at present.

Thirdly, establish a narrative that puts the present conflict in context. Democracy has always been messy, with inevitable good times and bad. What in the history of the electorate leads to the conclusion that the progressive position is the most promising one for the future? Let that future be born of ancient seed. Tell that story early, because introducing it late blunts its effectiveness.

In the instant case, a potential narrative would highlight Scotland’s leadership role in the world, which befits a country ten times its size; Scotland’s achievements in science and technology, arts and literature, and the very fundamentals of modern democracy itself are its own, and their spread across the world is a direct result of Scotland’s partnership with the United Kingdom. Scots are to be found in leadership roles throughout the history and present of the United Kingdom, and have led Britain in good times and hard. Hard times have come again; Scotland can choose to leave, or, in its own greatest traditions, it can stay and lead.

By acknowledging the legitimate grievances of the Scottish people, immediately proposing a resolution to those grievances, and placing the referendum in the context of Scotland’s leadership role in the United Kingdom and the world, the ‘No’ campaign could have spoken directly to the concerns of swing voters and eroded Yes’s support; instead, by (understandably) falling into the common progressive trap of simply arguing the superiority of its position, it stoked their defiance helped make a decided election too close to call.


Frank Spring is a political consultant who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a Political Partner of the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.