Dissecting the Referendum: The Campaigns

Although the time between the polls opening and the final result being declared was only a little more than 25 hours, the real story of how the Scottish independence referendum was won and lost has a deep history of two years or more.  For many it has been a process that has gone on for far too long, and there are calls from people across the country to move on and abandon the fierce politicking that has gripped the nation especially tightly during the last few months.  For me it’s a strange time, with the excitement and anticipation of the vote gone and only the analysis of what went right and wrong left to pore over.

Picking the point where this independence campaign is tough.  You could argue that either of the SNP’s two Scottish election victories in 2007 or 2011 marked the start of the debate, but the real beginning of the campaigns was the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in October 2012 – signalling the UK Government’s acceptance that there will be a referendum and that the result will be binding.  That was when it was settled that Scotland would have a choice and that’s where the debate over Scotland’s future really began.  Rather than having three options (independence, devo-max and the status quo) or perhaps two questions (Should more powers be devolved to the Scottish Parliament? & Should Scotland be an independent country?), the Westminster government insisted on a simple Yes or No question to accept or reject Scottish independence.  At the time, opinion polls suggested that the devo-max option, normally considered to transfer almost all power other than defence and foreign affairs to Edinburgh, was the preferred one.  Westminster’s theory behind the Yes/No proposal was that given the choice between the risk of independence and the status quo that No would win comfortably and little would need to be done to appease Scotland.

At that point it was almost inconceivable that Yes would win.  An average of the most recent polls from different organisations saw support for independence at 31% and for No at 53% (with 16% undecided, interestingly enough a figure that changed very little until early August).  There was a tremendous mountain for Yes to climb to get close to winning.  We know now though that despite the daunting prospect it faced, support for independence has soared over the last two years and came close to being realised.

Yes Scotland has become the largest grassroots political campaign in our nation’s history.  It had a clear and positive vision for Scotland, concentrating on how taking matters into our own hands would give Scotland the opportunity to really make a difference.

Better Together was an all-round shambles.  They had by far the easier job of simply maintaining the support that existed for the union.  They only had to convince the people of Scotland that what they had was good and that things would get better as part of the United Kingdom.  However, the story of Better Together’s campaign is one of scaremongering and negative campaigning that focussed far too much on the negatives of Scotland now and Scotland future.  It’s clear from the shift in the polls that Better Together held on by the skin of their teeth to hold out from what would have been a monumental defeat.

There are four main areas where I think the Yes campaign was particularly strong and although they did not win the referendum there can be no doubt that they won the battle of the campaigns.

Firstly, Yes Scotland’s marketing was far superior.  From its’ launch, the visual aesthetic and ideology of the Yes campaign was clear, bright and positive.  It focussed on how Scotland could be a better place and how independence would give us a chance to right the wrongs of our society.  Its message and vision for Scotland did not waver from the start to the end.  It’s true it did its’ utmost to capitalise on slips from the opposition, particularly where the NHS was concerned in the final weeks of the debate, but for the most part it stayed clear of disparaging rivals and went for the moral high ground.

Better Together were not a coherent force throughout the campaign.  With around six months to go before the debate, approximately three quarters of the way into the campaign, they decided to rebrand to being “No thanks”, in an attempt to seem more positive. Blair MacDougall, campaign director for Better Together, may have been more vocal and more visible than counterpart Blair Jenkins, but towards the end of the debate his focus was on singling out the vanishing minority of Yes supporters who had taken to deface No Thanks stickers or egg Jim Murphy. The final example of Better Together’s marketing ineptitude was their frankly awful broadcast “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind”, which while attempting to steady their flagging support amongst women actually served to demean them and drive them over to the Yes side.  Instead of broadcasting their vision for why Scotland was better as part of the UK they focussed far too heavily on dismissing the idea that independence was plausible, and although they won the referendum in the end largely based on an argument that falls under that category, they could have won by more if they had taken a more positive line.  The saving grace for Better Together in the last few days of the campaign was Gordon Brown’s speech urging Scots to stay in the UK, which had more passion and more pathos than any previous No campaign effort and may well have won over the votes of several hundred undecided voters.

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