How Scotland said no

Robert Henderson

Great is the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the independence side as they try to come to terms with rejection in the Scottish referendum. The  Scots National Party (SNP) politicians and much of the mainstream media are trying to portray this as a  great result because  1.6 million voted to leave the UK, with many  of this motley crew claiming that the result  gave the independence supporting politicians a mandate to bargain for greater devolved powers. But try as they may there is no disguising  that a  55% to 45%  result is a  thumping win for the Unionist side in a two horse race.

The win is even better than it looks because of the grotesque  ineptitude of Cameron and the Better Together side  which handed Salmond a platter full of goodies to boost the pro-independence vote.

Cameron spinelessly  accepted  these  conditions when he signed the Edinburgh Agreement  with  Salmond :

  1. A referendum which excluded the rest of the UK.
  2. The referendum to go forward without the terms of separation being agreed. (The terms should have been  agreed and put to the rest of the UK in a referendum before being put to the Scots).
  3. A simple majority to decide the referendum rather than a super-majority, for example, 70% of those voting or 60% of the entire electorate.  Such super-majorities are reasonable when the matter at issue is of such profound importance.
  4. The referendum to be held in 2014 which is the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. This allowed Salmond to tie the anniversary celebrations to the referendum. In addition, if there had been a YES vote,  holding the referendum in 2014 would have created immense practical problems because , unless Parliament extended its life, there could only be seven months  after the referendum  before a general election had to be  held.  After a YES vote  that election could easily have returned a House of Commons which was very  different from the present one. There could have been a  Commons  with a Labour government or Labour in coalition with parties other than the Tories  with  very different ideas  to the  present coalition government of what should be agreed with Holyrood.  It is also plausible that the Tories could have come back with a solid majority  if the electorate thought they were the party least likely to give too much to Scotland.
  5. The voting age of the electorate for the referendum being reduced to 16.
  6. The Scottish parliament to frame the referendum question . The question “Should Scotland be an independent country? was clearly biased because voters had to mark the ballot paper YES or NO . Yes is an hooray word and NO a boo word . It was an elementary framing error.  The question should have been put in such a way as to avoid YES and NO, for example, with two questions such as “Do you want Scotland to be part of the UK?” and Do you want Scotland to leave the UK?”  with a blank box beside both in which a cross could be put.  (It tells you a great deal about Electoral Commission that it passed the wording of such an obviously flawed question)

Those are the strategic mistakes.  There was also many errors of presentation:

  1. Cameron began the process by going to Edinburgh to conclude what became the Edinburgh Agreement. This was a mistake because a politician who goes to  treat on another politician’s home ground will be seen as subordinate.  It  was particularly absurd behaviour  in this case because Salmond wanted something from Cameron. He was the supplicant but it was Cameron who  behaved as a supplicant.
  2. The placing of the Better Together campaign in the hands of the Labour Party. This meant the game was played according to Salmond’s rules, because  Labour is heavily dependent on Scotland to provide MPs and is one of the main players in the Scottish Parliament.  Consequently,  the Better Together spokesmen were constantly treading on eggshells  in case their behaviour rebounded not merely on the Better Together campaign but Labour’ fortunes generally.  The exclusion  from the Better Together campaign of political voices who were not Scots  reinforced this  problem. Because it was wall to wall Scots being put up by the Better Together campaign, those who acted as its spokesmen lived in terror of being accused of being a traitor or Quisling or generally slighting Scotland. This meant they were constantly lauding the great qualities of Scotland and the Scots whilst saying by implication that Scotland were not fit to rule itself.  The absence of  non-Scottish voices also meant that there was no balance whatsoever to the frankly over-the-top representation of the human resources of the country both past and present.  There was no Better Together speaker who simply gave the pros and cons of the debate without encasing it in Scottish patriotic mantras.
  3. The choice of Alastair Darling as head of Better Together. If there was a turning point against the NO campaign it was Darling’s dire performance in his second debate with Salmond.
  4. The Unionist politicians’ response to a single poll two weeks from the ballot showing the YES camp marginally ahead  was unalloyed  panic as Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all suddenly headed for Scotland   promising Scotland the Earth, including the preservation in apparent perpetuity of the Barnett Formula.  Such promises were bogus because only the Westminster  Parliament can sanction such promises and no Parliament can bind a successor.  This made the NO camp look both dishonest and lacking in character (Frankly, these  are   not people with whom you  would want to be with in a tight corner).

To these errors can be added  points which remained unmade and  questions unasked by the Better Together representatives which would have seriously embarrassed the YES side:

– Salmond’s claim that Scotland has part ownership of the Pound. This is a literal nonsense. The legal position is very simple: the Pound Sterling is the English currency. Scotland gained the right to share it when they signed the Treaty of Union. If they leave the Union they forfeit that right because the Treaty and the subsequent Acts of Union will no longer operate.

– Salmond’s threat to default on taking a proportionate share of the UK national debt if they do not get a currency union. This is a non-starter because Scottish independence is dependent on the Westminster Parliament repealing the Act of Union.

–  Why on Earth did no one on the Better Together side not ask Salmond the question              “Who will be Scotland’s lender of the last resort if there is Sterlingisation?” A simple            question but one Salmond would not have been able to evade.

– The startling failure of the NO camp to expose s the bogus nature of the “independence”  Salmond was chasing by mentioning the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire result of Scotland joining the EU. This was  down to the fact that all the  Westminster politicos involved in the NO campaign are bound by their devotion to the EU  not to mention the UK’s subordination to the EU at all costs.  To accuse Salmond of seeking to go from emersion in the UK to emersion  in the EIU, quite probably within the Euro, would be to admit that the UK is not independent but a prisoner of the EU.

The influence of the pollsters

The polls seriously understated the noes.   The last YouGov Poll (taken after people had voted)  gave the No camp a lead of  six points.  Earlier polls had veered wildly (although only two showed the YES camp in the lead).  During the campaign pollsters  were suggesting margins of error as high as six  either way which means a span of 12 points.  A margin of error of  two either way is reasonable, three is  just about acceptable,  but anything larger simply means the poll is next to worthless.

Why did pollsters  get it so wrong?   Many  polls these days  are conducted through the  internet rather than by phone or even better face to face.  These are  based on cohorts of those of different social and economic status, age, gender and ethnicity whose details are held by the company.  The sample for a poll is drawn from this   database. This  produces a  built in bias because it only draws its samples from those who are computer literate and have access to a computer.  This will under-represent  the poor  generally and older people  in particular, the latter being  much less likely to use computers but  more likely to vote and vote NO in this particular poll.

The second thing understating the noes was the intimidatory atmosphere towards NO voters  in which the referendum was  conducted.    Although there may have been rough stuff on both the YES and NO sides,  the balance of misbehaviour was heavily on the YES side. For example, there were widespread complaints in the mainstream media  about the vandalising of NO posters and plenty of examples where NO supporters were shouted down, often with accusations of being traitors or Quislings .   There was little of this type of behaviour  reported in the mainstream media  involving NO supporters .  It is easy to see how NO supporters could be wary of advertising who they were supporting.

Even where polls are accurate, there is a very strong case for banning polling during any campaign involving an official  ballot because of the natural  herd mentality within humans in the mass.  They undoubtedly influence voting behaviour. In this referendum the case for banning polls was made a good deal stronger by the their  lack of veracity. This had its most dramatic effect  when a  single poll showing the YES camp  marginally ahead panicked  the leaders of the three major UK parties into  making promises to the Scots which they did not have the power to keep and which by their nature would have severely damaged English interests had such promises been kept.  A clearer example of polling influencing a public vote would be difficult to find.

Why did the Noes win?

In the end the primary reason was the fact that the YES side to often offered the voters  little more than emotion on which to base their decision.  No matter what facts  were  provided by the NO side, no matter what questions were asked, the YES side effectively  stopped their ears and shouted that they weren’t listening.

The three major Westminster parties stated that there would be no currency union, the Yes side said it was just a bluff (it should be remembered that Salmond was booed during his first debate with  Alastair Darling when he repeatedly refused to answer the question).  When Salmond said Scotland would not take on a proportionate share of the UK’s national debt if there was no currency union he refused to engage with those who pointed out that it would be treated as a default  with serious consequences for Scotland’s ability to borrow on the international markets and allegedly said “What are they [the rest of the UK] going to do, invade us?”.   When  senior EU figures said that Scotland would have difficulty in joining the EU at all or on the terms the YES camp  claimed would be available, essentially those which Scotland  enjoys  part of the UK, these objections  were waved away as being of no account.  Whilst saying  Scotland would remain part of NATO the Yes side  insisted not only that the British nuclear deterrent must be removed from Scottish soil, seemingly oblivious to the fact that NATO membership, while not requiring nuclear capability of its members, commits them to collective  responsibility  if NATO uses nuclear weapons, for example, in the circumstances of a nuclear strike having occurred on a NATO member.

Those were the headline  issues to which the YES camp had no sensible answer or strategy, but there were many more  questions – defence,  immigration, pensions (both public and private) and welfare  and suchlike – which were left in limbo by the YES camp’s bluster.

Alongside a failure to provide meaningful answers to important questions, there was an unsavoury side to the YES campaign which became nastier as the vote approached  with both  routine intimidation of NO supporters and threats such as those made by the SNP’s former deputy leader  Jim Sellars  that Scottish businesses supporting the NO side would face “a day of reckoning” if there was a YES vote.  Nor did it help that Salmond and co were presenting directly or by implication NO voters as unpatriotic, a tactic encapsulated in their description of YES voters as “Team Scotland  That will have had an effect.

Doubtless  the natural inclination to preserve the status quo  and the warnings by the NO side of dire consequences if there was a YES vote for everything from the currency would use to the price of goods in Scottish supermarkets had  an effect but as these were present throughout the campaign it is reasonable to believe they were of secondary importance to the way the YES camp presented themselves.

The YES camp made the mistake of thinking that a single strategy –  appeals to the emotion through patriotism – would be enough.   That was effective with those emotionally vulnerable to such pleas but it offered little to anyone willing to think about the consequences of independence.   It is perhaps significant that the wealthier and better educated  voters favoured NO, while the poorer and less educated favoured YES .  The poor are less likely to have voted, something shown by the lowest turnout in the referendum (75%)  being in Glasgow, by far the largest electoral  district  in Scotland.  There  were not enough people with whom the patriotism drum resonated who also took the trouble to vote.

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3 Responses to How Scotland said no

  1. Excellent commentary, and particularly the intimidation aspect which was barely if at all reported on. Yes, the “shy No” voters should really have been called the “scared No” voters. In your long list of all the concessions made to Salmond you omitted the fact that anyone living in Scotland, even foreigners, were allowed to vote whereas Scots living outside Scotland were not allowed. I’m assuming that slippery Salmond did his cunning research here too, as he did with 16 & 17 year olds. The only surprise for me was that he didn’t somehow contrive an excuse to stop older people from voting, or at least make it more difficult for them. I’m sure he must have thought about it though.

  2. Antony says:

    Very good analysis. Quite a lot here I wasn’t aware of. Thanks.

  3. David Nummey says:

    I disagree pretty profoundly with your analysis. It would take too long to list all my concerns, but I think your concerns regarding intimidation, for example, are very one-sided. Having being raised in Glasgow, and having spent a lot of time there during the referendum, my observation is that the biggest source of intimidation – by far – was by hard line loyalists linked to the Orange Order. There was nothing remotely comparable from the ‘Yes’ side. If you don’t understand and comment on that, it undermines the rest of your analysis significantly.

    The examples you have given by people like Jim Sillars (whose statement I disagreed with, but I also think has been taken out of context) is part of the normal rhetoric of high- stakes politics. There were a number of comparable statements from the ‘No’ side – for example, Lord George Robertsons use of the term ‘cataclysmic’ in regard to the impact of Scottish independence on western society.

    One or two of your thoughts rang true – particularly the issues around polling companies – but a lot came across as observation from afar, mainly seen through other media sources.

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