By James Morris
After all the frenzy of the last fortnight, as newspapers thundered that the UK was on the brink of collapse and politicians cleared their schedules to save the Union, the referendum was not a cliffhanger. A solid majority of Scots opted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
While the result was clear, it was not the overwhelming majority many on the ‘no’ side initially hoped for. Polls in 2012 were recording 20 or even 30 point majorities opposing independence. UK-wide politics paid little attention when, in early 2014, the lead dropped down towards 10 points; but panic hit Downing Street in early September when a poll emerged showing ‘yes’ ahead, and others showed the race tightening. Whether that political response explains the restoration of a double digit lead or not is unclear; but what is clear is that there are lessons to be learned for campaigners in the UK and worldwide.
The tendency in political analysis is to treat victorious campaigns as the font of all wisdom and think that losing campaigns can only teach us what not to do. That way of thinking leads incumbent parties to replicate what they have done before, until finally the other side overtakes them. So, below, are five lessons for the future drawing from both campaigns:
Change needs reassurance.
While ‘no’ didn’t get the best of the campaign, they did get the result they wanted. Ultimately, that was because Scots were not ready to make the leap into an uncertain future. By twenty points, the single biggest reason ‘no’ voters gave for their vote was because ‘The risks of becoming independent looked too great’. In particular, the nationalists were unable to explain what currency Scotland would use at a time when the Euro is deeply distrusted; nor could they explain how UK funded pensions would be paid.
Campaigns for change often want to emphasise the radicalism of what they propose. To win, they need to balance that with voters need for reassurance. The 'yes' campaign couldn't get that balance right, and doubts won the day.
The power of emotion.
The ‘yes’ campaign made progress through their emotional argument. They couldn’t answer some basic questions about their economic policy, but they could make a passionate, patriotic case for Scottish self-determination and a brighter future.
In contrast the ‘no’ campaign wasn’t always as effective at marshalling the power of emotion. Sometimes the economic case came over as if it was being made by accountants, not passionate engaged leaders. At other times, the campaign seemed fearful about the future. This opened them up to attack as ‘yes’ claimed they lacked a patriotic belief in the capability of the Scots.
The “no” campaign hit its stride when there was a tension between their message and the emotion they conveyed. They became more compelling when they combined a message about risk with the emotion of pride. Jim Murphy’s 100 Streets tour took the message to Scottish streets, standing on an Irn Bru crate he showed that patriotism demanded a no. But, the single best combination of pride with the risk message is this brilliant speech by Gordon Brown MP, that came very late in the game. What Brown does so effectively is convey a real passion and show that ‘no’ is a vote against separation, but also for a better future for his children and the country he loves.
"We fought two world wars together. And there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh, and Irish lying side-by-side. And when young men were injured in these wars, they didn’t look to each other and ask whether you were Scots or English, they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause. And we not only won these wars together, we built the peace together, we built the health service together, we built the welfare state together, we will build the future together. And what we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever."
Little benefit in running against all change.
Despite the recovery, most voters in Britain still think their personal economic situation is getting worse. The political establishment is felt to be out of touch, unresponsive and unreliable. In their anti-establishment, outsider stance and strong momentum, the Scottish Nationalist Party is a sibling of UKIP, the Danish People’s, the 5 Star Movement party, and all the other outsider parties that made big gains in this Spring’s European Parliament elections and are still charging up the polls across Europe.
In this context, it is no surprise that just 14% of Scots think that the current devolution system should be preserved. The case for ‘no’ struggled when it became painted as arguing for that system – the status quo. They needed a better to answer to the question posed by an audience member in the second televised debate: ‘if we are better together, why aren’t we better together now?’. When people are struggling, it made no sense to say to say that we should leave things as they are and it will all turnout out better in the end. They needed an offer for the future as well as a message about risk.
This was the core insight that drove the response from Westminster when the polls tightened. The three main party leaders signed up to offering increased devolution to Scotland. David Cameron’s party leader in Scotland began campaigning on the basis that the Tories would probably lose the next election and so voters would get change in any case. ‘No’ began talking about ‘faster, safer, better change’.
Party brands transform arguments.
Scotland has 59 members of parliament and only one of them is a Conservative. Anti-Thatcher rhetoric moved voters who weren’t even born when she resigned. The ‘yes’ campaign did a great job of mobilising this anti-Tory feeling, particularly in the second televised debate. Their core negative message was about the threat to the NHS from a Tory government bent on cuts and privatisation – an agenda Scots intuitively feel the Tories have. Alex Salmond used the second debate to back the ‘no’ campaign leader into defending the Tories from these charges; effectively spreading Tory brand values onto the ‘no’ campaign’s Better Together brand and damaging their ability to get their message across.
The ‘no’ campaign responded smartly, shifting focus from ‘Better Together’ branded spokespeople and letting Labour party politicians take the lead under the red rosette of the party, not the union colours of the campaign.
Turnout is about high stakes and air war as much as ground war.
This is the first campaign I’ve seen where polling places shut early because everyone in that ward had voted. Turnout was 85 per cent in an expanded electorate that included 16 and 17 year olds. This wasn’t because the campaigns had great ground games. The ‘no’ campaign had the experience of many Labour party activists, but they were used to delivering turnouts half what was achieved in the referendum. The ‘yes’ campaign barely had a central canvassing system at all. Instead it was the issue that was key, coupled with the deliberate effort to raise the stakes on both sides. Both sides emphasised that there was no turning back from the result, both sides emphasised that every vote would count, and by the close of the campaign, both sides were trying to show how it would matter to each individual in personal ways.
The referendum is a sign of a remarkable maturity in democracy. Two fifths of Scots have lost their dream of a separate country and yet there is no real sign of sectarianism or violence. The Scottish Nationalists have agreed to work on the implementation of the devolution offer made by the unionist parties. The campaign captured imaginations and made voters think. And it showed that campaign, message, and strategy can make a big difference.
James Morris is Partner and Director of UK Office at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global consultancy for public opinion research and campaign strategy.
Led by Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, GQR Global Political Update is a platform for expert international campaign consultants to analyze new global trends, challenges, and developments in their field.
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