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

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