One year to go for Scotland

James Mitchell analyses how the Yes and No campaigns are framing the referendum debate

The contours of the referendum debate have become clear with a year to go before the vote. Agreement has been reached on the question to be asked. There will, no doubt, be a few surprises over the next year but the broad picture is unlikely to change.

Each side makes remarkably similar claims. Both Yes Scotland and Better Together claim to have established a network of local groups across Scotland. Indeed, both claim to have around 200 local or sectoral groups operating under the umbrella campaign organisation. Each claims that this is a grassroots campaign with large numbers of local events. Both are training campaigners and ‘ambassadors’ in communities the length and breadth of Scotland. Both are using sophisticated polling methods and have a better understanding of what the electorate is thinking than any commentator. The public polls attract much media attention and commentary but are crude and unsophisticated compared to the intelligence being gathered by each campaign organisation.

Both campaigns emphasise the role being played by non-politicians including many people never previously engaged in politics. There are conscious efforts to attract people into this constitutional moment from outside conventional party politics. Whether the referendum will refresh Scottish politics in the long-run depends on who becomes involved, whether they remain involved and, crucially, what they bring to public debate. There is ample anecdotal and hard evidence that Scotland is witnessing a revival of old style public meetings. This presents challenges to the media in how they cover the campaign.

Neither side is particularly keen to portray this as a battle of identities, about Scottishness versus Britishness. The YES campaign wishes to project this as a choice between an independent Scotland and the UK and recognise dangers in being seen as anti-British given the extent to which most Scots retrain some sense of Britishness. The NO campaign is clear that any perception that supporting the union means opposing Scottishness would be damaging. From their different vantage points, neither side what this to be about identity.

Referendums are like elections in being about the framing of issues. This is where a very clear difference exists between the two campaigns. Yes Scotland is keen to project a positive image of independence but also keen to frame the question in terms of what it would mean for Scotland to remain within the union. There is a desire to contrast two futures, each seen as involving change. They seek to portray the constitutional status quo as involving substantial change in other respects, suggesting that the welfare state is under threat with the prospect of either Tory Governments into the future or other parties governing the UK but pursuing more or less the same policies as the Conservatives. Yes Scotland want this to be a referendum on David Cameron’s party.

Better Together would prefer that the focus was on a choice between an undifferentiated status quo and independence. They have no desire that this becomes a choice between the First Minister and Prime Minister, between the Scottish and UK Governments. The Conservatives are at the heart of these competing efforts to frame the referendum choice. One side desperately wants to invoke the Tory name and encourage the Prime Minister to play a major part in the campaign including having a debate between the Prime Minister and the First Minister as representatives of alternative governments. The other is equally determined to dilute, as they know they cannot entirely remove, the Tory element from the campaign and keep Mr Cameron out of any debate and, indeed, out of Scotland as much as possible over the next.

Both sides are keen to relate constitutional choice to other public policy issues. Better Together and Yes Scotland want the economy and defence to be central to the debate but in very different ways. Each side believes that these issues are vote-winners. Once more, this is about framing. Yes Scotland focus on an independent Scotland’s right to declare war and get rid of nuclear weapons. Better Together suggest that independence would put Scotland’s security at risk.

Differences arise over welfare in these debates. Supporters of the union prefer that welfare issues are treated as matters to be determined at subsequent UK and Scottish Parliamentary elections, while supporters of independence see welfare as central to the referendum debates. This difference reflects the greater diversity of support for the union versus the greater coherence amongst supporters of independence. Once more, this comes down to a focus on the Conservatives.

What has emerged in terms of framing these arguments is a more expansive understanding of the constitutional debate on the part of Yes Scotland than is found amongst its opponents in Better Together.  Predictably, the extent to which the Conservatives become an issue in this referendum could have a significant impact on the outcome.


This post was originally published by  appeared by  the Future of UK and Scotland ESRC website:

Professor James Mitchell is Chair of Pubic Policy in the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University.

6 thoughts on “One year to go for Scotland

  1. What arrangements have been put in place should Scotland wish to re-join the Union at some later date?

    Many will take heart in the knowledge that it is only the Westminster government (acting on behalf of England, Northern Ireland and Wales) that can agree to such.

    When the oil runs out isn’t it quite likely that the people will run out of Scotland too?

  2. The only good purpose of Scotland having Its referendum is to prevent jumped up, self important,would be petty politicians like Mr Salmond from stirring up hatred within the British Isles between the countries. If Scotland votes “no” they will have to pipe down! If the vote goes “yes” it will serve the Scottish electorate right! They will look forward to having worse schools,higher taxes,and an inferior Health than in England . More fool them,and good-riddance.
    While we are on the subject of worse schools,and a health service inferior to that in England when will the Welsh Assembly hand over the job of improving matters, back to the Government in Westminster?

  3. KP,
    Maybe you can name me a country which has gained independence from the UK and then wanted to rejoin at a later date?

    Peter Hugh Charles Davies,
    So, following your reasoning, after the 2008 financial crisis the effects of which are still felt to this day, we should have wrestled control from the UK parliament and given them to another. The Welsh Assembly maybe?

  4. That there is a referendum on independence illustrates that something is radically wrong with the British state. If the polls are correct some 1.3 million Scots would vote today to leave the Union and another million or more are undecided. Thirty thousand Scots marched in Edinburgh this weekend. Vilifying them achieves nothing positive. Indeed, it’s more likely to persuade the undecided to vote YES.

    To date, the so-called Better Together campaign has been negative, and London centred. It has the support of the media, particularly the BBC. The Tories cannot be openly seen to support it, as their brand is toxic in Scotland. It has to be fronted by a former Labour Chancellor, now a back-bench MP, who presided over the worst financial crisis in living memory. He would, it seems, rather Scotland be governed by Tories from London, rather than make decisions for itself. The Prime Minister, the arch-defender of the Union, dare not debate the issues with Scotland’s First Minister on TV.

    I predict that the gap in the polls will narrow during the course of the coming year, and the outcome will be close. That the debate is being hijacked in the media by the opponents of independence is a threat to democracy, and is likely to backfire if the Scots aren’t given the opportunity to hear the case fairly from both sides. There is already a significant democratic deficiency in the UK, with the FPTP system of voting for the Commons, and the unelected House of Lords.

    Unfortunately for the unionists, the tide of history is against them. The rationale for the British state is dissipating rapidly. The writing is on the wall. Even Carwyn Jones is beginning to realise that fact.


    Not one of the fifty or so former British colonies or dominions has elected to return to rule from London. I don’t think Scotland will be an exception. A recent poll showed that a large majority of Scots wouldn’t vote for the Union if it was being proposed today.

    Peter Hugh Charles Davies:

    If only a minority in Wales support independence or home rule, similarly it’s a minority that support a return to Westminster administration. In reality, devolution has been taking place since the 1950s, and it isn’t ever going to be rolled back.

    Whatever the shortcomings of the Labour-dominated Assembly and Labour Government in Cardiff, the 2011 referendum and polls show increasing acceptance and growing support for devolution. If the Scots vote YES, as I think is likely, for they are canny folk, then the relationship between Wales and England will also have to be redefined. There will be a significant majority in the Assembly which will insist on it – Labour, Plaid, LibDem, and even some Conservatives.

    Change is in the air, whether you or I like it or not. Far better to make a positive and mature contribution to the debate, than a torrent of negativity.

  5. This constant comparing of scotland (or Wales) with ex colonies is a red herring! When did Jamaica or Tonga ever share a treasury and a passport office with the rest of us?

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