Whoever wins the vote, Yes has won the campaign

Lee Waters assesses the campaigns that have led up to today’s independence referendum.

Only a fool predicts the future, and with polls consistently showing that the outcome is within the margin of statistical error, it would take a particularly foolish fool to call this one.

Just a month ago YouGov found that only 35% of people planned to vote for Scottish Independence, but four weeks on and the Yes campaign is within touching distance of victory.

Even if there is a No vote Scotland will get extra powers and protected spending, and the SNP will have secured a launchpad for a successful General Election campaign, a continued majority at Holyrood and a very strong base to trigger another independence referendum within a generation. So whoever wins the vote, Yes Scotland can be said to have won the campaign.

How have they done it?  They’ve run a campaign that has stayed faithful to the progressive playbook: hope, not fear; the future, not the past; and a local grassroots campaign.

In a much more modest way the 2011 cross-party Yes for Wales campaign suggested the template – a big tent campaign, that was unremittingly positive, and a focus on the stories and advocacy of ‘real people’ rooted in their communities. The Welsh campaign went one further in minimizing the visibility of elected politicians and had civic society figures fronting the campaign.

The Yes campaign in Scotland took this template and added booster rockets. The No campaign did the reverse.

It is clearly difficult to make a positive of a negative; asking people to oppose something automatically puts you on the defensive.  But, at the design stage, it was clear that the focus groups were telling the campaign architects to frame their case in positive terms. The fact the campaign was titled ‘Better Together’ showed they understood that, but the lesson was quickly forgotten.

Project Fear has been a disaster. Its analysis was based on the premise that the interests of London were the same as the ‘periphery’, as constitutional scholars have long become used to calling the Celtic constituent parts of the UK.   And at times it was delivered with a withering and dismissive sneer.

Viewed from the booming south it is indeed hard to fathom why the Scots would wish to dismantle ‘the most successful political union in history’. As the polls gradually converged this bemusement turned to anger, fuelled by the surveys of popular feeling in England which pointed to a growing resentment to the special provisions being granted to their neighbours.

There are highly relevant and mightily complex questions associated with dismantling a deeply embedded Union which were essential to discuss in the campaign. However, the alarmist framing of the consequences of these questions, and the method of delivery – largely by people not seen as sympathetic to the success of a devolved Scotland – was profoundly flawed. When contrasted with the largely positive and calm Yes campaign, the tone of the “better together” message served to underline the analysis of the independence advocates.

The campaign for a No vote not only failed to mobilise pro-union sentiment, but it drove floating voters and ‘soft’ unionists into the arms of the Yes campaign.

I do not know the people who ran the Better Together campaign but having been involved at the centre of the much shorter and less intense Welsh referendum campaign I am sympathetic to the difficulties they faced. Indeed, the official No campaign will have had little control over some of the less helpful stories published by the London press in the name of their shared objectives. The difficulties intensify when you add into the mix the three party dynamic, coalition government and inevitable tensions between the conflicting perspectives of London and Edinburgh. However, taking all that into consideration the Better Together campaign will not be treated kindly by analysts or historians.

A campaign driven by London’s perspectives and prejudices was doomed to fail. Their message was easily interpreted as a judgment that the Scots weren’t up to it, and that complexities are best left to the wisdom of Whitehall. That was never likely to inspire a nation that has been augmenting the architecture of statehood for the last 15 years.

Gordon Brown’s late role in this campaign will be much analysed. His early call for a positive and modern narrative of Britishness when he was positioning himself to become Prime Minister may well be seen as a lost opportunity for keeping the Union intact. The book he published late in the campaign, My Scotland, Our Britain, showed that he – perhaps alone amongst senior Labour figures – “got” the aspirational mood that Alex Salmond has helped create. Brown wrote,

“The United Kingdom was once said to be a union of four nations which worked in practice, but not in theory. Today, after two decades of reform, it does not work either in theory or in practice”

But his prescription for saving the Union seemed hurried and tortured, and crucially did not take into account the perspectives of the other parts of the UK.  It also caused confusion in the messaging of the No campaign, and added to the sense of panic.

The landlady of my Edinburgh guest house had been telling me the morning before Gordon Brown’s speech in the final days of the campaign that she was a no voter, and was clearly deeply concerned about the warnings of job losses in the banking sector and the threat of price rises by the supermarkets. But after Brown’s offer of more powers she was even more confused: “Why are they offering us more when they’ve been saying that England can stand on their own two feet without us?”, she asked plaintively. She just didn’t get it. She instinctively believed in the Union and didn’t think Scotland would have the wherewithal to be independent, but the last minute desperation to keep hold of the Scots by offering more and more was making her think right up to the very end that, perhaps, all was not how it seemed after all.

Her indecision is not unique. A few days before the vote I accompanied the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and a campaign aide, around the streets of her Glasgow Southside constituency. The local Yes campaign was tightly organised and had been gathering data on voting intentions for more than a year in advance. Despite her high profile role in fronting the campaign she spent Monday afternoon going door to door trying to nail down the ones that had, so far, got away. In hallways, driveways and living rooms I saw her chase every vote, combining a zen-like calm about the outcome, with an extraordinary drive and determination to seal the deal.  To a Muslim family she emphasised that just as Pakistan had secured Independence and not looked back, so Scotland would take its place in the club of mature nations. To another family she pointed out that immigration policy in a new State would be more humane, and would make it easier for them to bring their family to Scotland. To a floating voter concerned about the treatment of the vulnerable in an economically more austere Scotland she shamelessly claimed that in the event of a No vote Nigel Farage would join the government in London and oversee a right-wing lurch.

Perhaps the most striking feature of my afternoon observing her campaigning was the nature of the opposition she was facing – just a couple of doors firmly, but politely, closed; some insincere claims that minds had yet to be made when it was clear from their uncomfortable body language that they were not on her side; and a small number of genuinely ‘undecideds’ who had a series of practical questions for her to answer. But what was notably absent was a positive case for the Union.

Not a single voter in the two hours I spent with her said they were voting No because Britain was better together. Not a single No poster was visible in her central Glasgow constituency, a former Labour seat. For whatever reason – perhaps a fear of being out of step with the momentum of the Yes campaign, perhaps an embarrassment of endorsing the tone of the No campaign or, perhaps, a self-censorship for fear of intimidation – as some no campaigners claimed, although I saw no evidence of it – but a positive vision of a Union of nations was notably absent. “Nobody’s tried to make one” Sturgeon told me. “I could have made a better case for the Union than they have – even though I wouldn’t have believed it. There is a case to be made”, she said. And that suggests to me that even if there is a No vote the days of the Union with Scotland are numbered. If the principal case for staying together is negative and based on anxiety, that is not a case that is likely to hold for long.

If the Union is to be saved a new case needs to be made for its purpose. And a new shape must be fashioned. Not just Home Rule for Scotland but Home Rule All Around.

Over a year ago, First Minister Carwyn Jones told a private meeting of civil society organisations at his party’s conference that the Union between England and Scotland had become a “loveless marriage”.  If it is dissolved it is likely to be a painful divorce. If it can be saved there is now a deep rupture that will need much counselling to overcome.

And what of Wales?  It is not a question that has much troubled the Westminster leaders it would seem. The decision to support Gordon Brown’s guarantee of the future of the Barnett Formula in the event of a No vote is significant not only for its economic impact, but more for what it says about the weight of Welsh claims.

Under whatever outcome it is hard to be optimistic about the consideration of our requests for a ‘fairer funding’ model or the full-list of Silk Commission recommendations. At our conference last week on the implications for Wales two contributions stood out. Gerald Holtham, until recently an adviser to the Welsh Government and formerly chair of the Commission on Funding and Finance Commission for Wales, played down expectations of what might flow to Wales from the Scottish fallout. “We’re a non-story,” he said. “We’ve nothing interesting to say. All we have to say is ‘Give us more money’. My advice is tend the garden. Improve policy outcomes with the instruments we’ve got. Then we would be more persuasive. We have to raise our game”.

Guardian columnist and Chair of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, offered this thought:

“I think the real problem is that nobody knows what Wales really wants, in Scotland; you knew that the end game in Scotland was independence, you either get it or you don’t. In Wales I get no sense of there being anything. I really don’t know what it is that’s wanted. I heard Carwyn on the radio the other day sounding unbelievably hesitant and sort of, what does he want…If you want a convention, have a convention, stop waiting for someone to give you a convention. What’s the matter with you, have a convention, decide what it is you want to do and then present it to London and just at this particular moment in time you’ll just about get it”.

This referendum has already changed the shape of British politics. The question that now remains to be answered it: how will it change Welsh politics?

Lee Waters is Director of the IWA. This piece was offered exclusively to IWA members yesterday as part of their membership benefits package. To join the IWA please visit www.iwa.org.uk/en/support-us

18 thoughts on “Whoever wins the vote, Yes has won the campaign

  1. “you want a convention, have a convention, stop waiting for someone to give you a convention. What’s the matter with you, have a convention, decide what it is you want to do and then present it to London”

    “My advice is tend the garden. Improve policy outcomes with the instruments we’ve got. Then we would be more persuasive. We have to raise our game”

    both sound pieces of advice!

  2. If Scotland wins Friday morning, flip the coin and everyone else is the loser. Will there be a backlash against nationalism, wherever it is found, can it survive when it will be perceived as the mechanism that unpicked the Union ?

  3. Lee is right that, whether today’s result is an outright ‘Yes’ or – more likely – a narrow ‘No,’ it will be a strategic and tactical triumph for the ‘Yes’ campaign, the SNP, and Alex Salmond. Even a defeat gets them Home Rule and puts them on the five-yard line, needing only one last push. To be in this position from an initially unpromising start is a huge tribute to their total political superiority over the truly lamentable ‘No’ campaign. All past and present practitioners of the political arts must salute them.

    This makes Lee’s comparison with the 2011 Welsh ‘Yes’ campaign a little disingenuous, to put it politely. Where Salmond has triumphed against the odds, Wales 2011 was always an elephant stamping on an ant. Even then, the elephant could only get two thirds of a third of the electorate out to support it, in sharp contrast with today’s probable high turnout. His comments on the positivity of both ‘Yes’ campaigns also ignore their dark sides.

    Above all, it could be argued that Scotland 2014 has been more about the failings of the ‘No’ campaign, and its alleged supporters in Westminster, than about the virtues of the ‘Yes’ campaign. The Wales 2011 ‘No’ team were designated cannon fodder from the start, and under the circumstances fought well, but ‘Better Together’ started with every possible advantage. Nicola Sturgeon is right – not something one expects to find oneself typing – that she could have put the Unionist case better than its official leaders have. Anyone could.

    In any case, this could be a long night…

  4. It has indeed been a ‘shameless’ YES campaign, marked by deceit, bluster and intimidation. Lee Waters makes it clear that Nicola Sturgeon is prepared to say anything, however outrageous, to get a vote.
    Certainly the three UK parties have found it difficult to agree how far further powers to the devolved Scottish Parliament should go, just as they do for Wales where only the Lib Dems have so far guaranteed that the Silk 2 powers will be in their Manifesto in full for the 2015 election.
    But the YES campaign in Scotland have taken care to conceal their differences from the voters – green policies versus oil dependency, socialist Tommy Sheridan versus ultra capitalist Brian Souter – to peddle a shameless cult. See the wise words of Ewan Morrison at http://wakeupscotland.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/ewan-morrison-yes-why-i-joined-yes-and-why-i-changed-to-no/ .

  5. The comments about Sturgeon’s canvassing style sums it all up. Typical populist stuff which would not have been out of place in pre 1933 Germany. Any awkward question is not answered and brushed aside because it comes from a non believer in the cause. It is catch all party stuff which would have delighted the master of this type of politics Dr Goebbels.. You tell people what they want to hear. As one writer in the Guardian argues ” it’s the illusion of positivity.” To describe Pakistan which is a failed state as not looking back has to be a joke. I suppose if she had met a Bengali she would have praised the achievements of Bangladesh. The SNP I’m afraid has indulged in the worse sort of politics. It really is too early to argue that Salmond has won what ever tonight’s result. If it is a Yes he will have a great deal of explaining to do as the SNP lies unravel. If it is No you really cannot second guess what will happen in the present Parliament in the next few months or how any of this will play out in the next UK election. Off the cuff promises made in a panic and with no thought of the full consequences are not the way forward I’m afraid.

  6. The quotes by Gerald Holtham and Sir Simon Jenkins at the conclusion of Lee’s article are worth noting and remembering in the reviews that will follow the referendum in Scotland. Gerald Holtham says that “We have to raise our game.”

    Perhaps the mood in Cardiff Bay has been too cautious, of doing the right thing in the eyes of Westminster without bringing a some excitement into the process. I’m not talking about passion and rhetoric in the Assembly, but the notion that Welsh Government is actively exploring new forms of governance, not seeking to inherit second hand legacies from Westminster and the associated jargon. Such an approach would bring a new edge to the development of new laws, and an energized public service ready to push boundaries in the management of those laws.

  7. “To a floating voter concerned about the treatment of the vulnerable in an economically more austere Scotland she shamelessly claimed that in the event of a No vote Nigel Farage would join the government in London and oversee a right-wing lurch.”

    I’m not sure how ‘shameless’ that is – perhaps she’d read Jacob Rees-Mogg’s article urging the PM to make a deal with UKIP and bring Farage into cabinet as deputy PM:


    I know it’s only the Daily Mail, but it seems representative of one strand of the conservative party’s self-preservation strategy.

  8. “only the Lib Dems have so far guaranteed that the Silk 2 powers will be in their Manifesto in full for the 2015 election.”

    As my daughter would say….”Yeah,right..”

    Tuition fees anyone?

  9. Lee is right and the Yes has prevailed in Scottish politics irrespective of the final outcome tomorrow morning, but what we should ask is at what cost to both sides of the divide?

    Personally I never believed in the ‘More Democracy’ concept that brought devolved powers to Scotland, N. Ireland and Wales and genuinely concerned of the implications should Wales ever get the ‘Better Devolution’ that Carwyn Jones wants and demands through the ‘Devo Creep’ rather than the will of Welsh people through a referendum.

    In our case (Wales), can anyone honestly state that we are better off with the devolved powers that the Welsh Government currently has?

    In my humble opinion even with the ill informed electorate as to what’s I really happening in Wales, what the Welsh devo is about and for whose benefit, most people would say No – we are not better off – A staggering % of people in a recent BBC Wales poll stated they want WAG abolished!

    If we had impartial and an objective media who would challenge and expose excesses and perhaps deceit on the part of the Welsh Labour Government any talk of further devolved powers would have been squashes a long time ago.

    No Government, devolved or otherwise should ever be allowed to use Social Engineering policies and through them elevating a minority and their language above majority without mandate from the electorate, but in Wales that seems to be OK!?

  10. Great article, right on the money.

    If it’s a ‘no’ vote, then I too feel it will be a pyrrhic victory for Better Together, given the 3 years they had to cement a 20+ point margin of victory. In the trauma of it they might not even feel relieved,

    I agree with your take on the tide of negativity by the ‘no’ campaign. To go back to the time when the SNP announced the referendum, I seem to recall at about that time Dafydd Ellis Thomas offering a review on Plaids poor showing in the Assembly elections that occurred. Plaid went ‘on the negative’ against their senior Labour partner in government, which to DET was a big factor in the result. Is there a parallel with the negativity of the ‘No’ campaign?…and the case that there is only so much negativity that you can do before people get turned off by continual bad news…

  11. The Yes campaign has indeed won whatever the outcome of the vote because the Yes campaign is a movement of the people for the people. Given the might of the British state and its minions aligned against it the Yes campaign has galvanised the people of Scotland and will no doubt come out of this battle either with full Independence or at least Devo-max. All very well carping on about the perceived shortfalls of the Yes campaign but the real loser in this battle is the aggressive nationalism of the unionist side. The almost child-like “if you don’t play my way I’m taking my ball home” approach over the currency issue makes the ” we need to keep this wonderful union together” appear just what it is, a chimera of a union.
    Even if there is a small No vote this time it will be remarkably like the first Devolution vote in 1979 nothing more than a precursor of the Yes vote to come. I see no enthusiasm on the Britnat side to learn the lessons from their defeat. Even now the siren voices say “we shouldn’t have allowed them any devolution in the first place” not realising that as it was the will of the people and the unionists had no choice. I hope the Britnats continue with their arrogant, ignorant approach to the process fast gathering pace in the UK because they, more than the radical voices of this country are bringing forward the break up of this already fractured union.

  12. Writing this in Edinburgh just before the polls close the one thing that I shall remember is the disgraceful role of the UK – i.e. London – media. The strategy has been clear for some time – isolate Salmond and pretend that he and the SNP are the only ones wanting independence. For example, no mention of the Greens, and how often did we see Tommy Sheridan? Some of the front page leads in recent days, even in the Scottish editions, were only one step short of. ‘Alex Salmond ate my hamster!’

    By comparison, the unionist argument was promoted by three parties, with numerous spokespersons, designed to give the impression that everyone – bar Salmond and the SNP – was opposed to independence. But the less attractive of those opposed to independence – BNP, EDL, Ukip, Orange Order, etc – were largely kept out of the picture. Promoting the image that all ‘reasonable’ people were supporting the Union.

    The BBC deserves special mention because of the high regard in which it was previously held. Nick Robinson making an exhibition of himself at a press conference, and then lying on BBC News about what happened, will live long in the memory. As will Allegra Stratton’s hysteria. Then last night – again on Newsnight – Laura Kuessenberg got herself into a tizzy by repeatedly shouting at Alex Salmond that Scotland was now dangerously polarised and what did he have to say about it? (For she clearly believed it was all his fault.)

    If the BBC abandoned impartiality in the hope of persuading the Tories not to take away its licence fee then it made a massive miscalculation, for the Tories are still determined to get rid of the Beeb and now it has alienated many of its natural supporters. Former Newsnight Economic Editor Paul Mason summed it up on Twitter when he said that with the Scottish referendum the BBC was almost on a war footing, putting out unadulterated propaganda. I for one will be glad to see the BBC go.

  13. Well the “Whoever wins” is settled at 55% no. I’m listening to Salmond’s victory speech as I type. Yes that’s right, a gloating victory speech.

    The point is of course that he is right; when it is obvious to us in Wales that we deserve more money, we know that Scotland will get Barnett plus undisclosed tax receipts. Bully boy tactics carry the day and the utterly gutless political class has rolled over and invited Salmond, not to tickle their collective bellies, but to eviscerate them and wallow in the entrails.

  14. And, hard on the heels of wee Eck’s victory speech an unsurprisingly chipper Leanne Wood pops up to declare that the result in Scotland heralds the realisation of Plaid’s aspiration for fully devolved powers and tax raising ability in Wales.

    Who Knew??

    Did we in Wales, let alone the poor generous, put upon boobys in England, realise that a handfull of people in Scotland would over-rule the wishes (?) of all of us 59 million people…. now we should really consider that unanswered question: When do we get OUR referendum?

    What a laughable, tragi-comic situation; Plaid, rapidly becoming the 4th party in Wales, has, without any effort, and with the blessing of fellow traveller Nationalists like Carwyn Jones achieved what the majority of people in wales DON’T want.

  15. If campaign success is measured in terms of the number of lies, half-truths, and evasions then the Yes camp won.

  16. Looking at the results its clear that the Tartan Tories in the really well off parts of Scotland have deserted the SNP’s position and voted for their own self interest. Good for them and if we had a really decisive vote in Wales much the same would happen here. in the end a)class,b)wealth,c)self interest comes to the fore and with England set to run itself then we’ll become a ‘backwater’.When the English fully understand whats going on with ‘their money’ then we are in trouble,as why are poor people In London subsiding the very affluent welsh in Llandaff/Llanishen etc etc.

  17. Mr Morgan, don’t worry, they aren’t. Welsh taxes more than cover the total expenditure of the devolved government. The big gap in the Welsh budget comes in non-devolved spending, mostly welfare benefits -over £9 billion a year paid into Wales. The criteria for receiving benefits are non-devolved and the same across the UK. No-one gets more benefits because they are Welsh. The transfer into Wales is a consequence of relative poverty. Not much of that in Llandaff/Llanishen.

    Personally I would be ashamed to say that my local community is better having all its decisions taken for it by someone else – the consequence of abolishing our Assembly. If you don’t like the Welsh government, fine. Vote for someone else. Don’t cry to return to the womb. What’s the matter with you man?

  18. Both Holtham and Jenkins are right.
    The opportunity to change rhe B. formula was when Labour was in power and the money was rolling in. But Labour in Wales was in denial for a long time and when they eventually piped up Labour in London,including Mr G.Brown, did nothing. And recent pronouncements by Milliband suggest that nothing will change.
    Say what you will about Salmond, it is the SNP which has shaken up the politics of the UK and panicked its complacent London centric establishment. To see the UK parties,discredited financiers and the whole media,including the ‘liberal’ papers , acting as if this democratic excercise was an affront to all decent thinking people was truly revealing.

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