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 :
- A referendum which excluded the rest of the UK.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- The voting age of the electorate for the referendum being reduced to 16.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.