As campaigning over the Scottish Referendum draws to a close, we examine the mistakes the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have made.
Now that the panic at Better Together has subsided, as the ‘Yes’ vote narrowly somersaulted over ‘No’ in the polls, only for the pendulum to swing back again the other way, the one thing clear about the impending outcome is that it’s not going to be a landslide victory for either side. This fact will cheer the ‘Yes’ voters and shake the ‘No’ campaign out of their complacency of dominion, regardless of the ultimate result. The ‘Yes’ campaign have come further than many expected when Alex Salmond first started shaking his blue and white tail feathers in 2011, but the current stalemate is indicative of the fact that neither campaign has played their cards with entirely consummate skill. Although not exactly a farce, the whole process has seen some obvious bum notes – Better Together’s ‘The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind’ video, latterly baptised as the ‘Patronising BT Lady’, springs to mind – but in an uneven playing field, it may have been some of the smaller ruts in the ground that tripped up the warring camps.
Better Together’s video, which has drawn scorn from both sides of the debate, features a Scottish mother who refers to Salmond as “that guy off the telly” and laments her husband’s persistent nattering about the issue. Far from convincing voters to support the union, its patronising tone and archaic attitude has prompted many incensed viewers to swing the other way.
Many commentators saw this as simply the latest trip-up in a moth-eaten Better Together campaign which, despite its happy-clappy moniker, they claim was based largely on scaremongering and overwhelming negativity. This may seem like pointing out that a brick wall is a little hard, considering the entire campaign, headed by Alistair Darling, is based around the sentiments implied by the word ‘No’, but it could perhaps have focused more on the benefits of remaining within the Union and offered some consoling sweeteners, rather than insisting on the apocalyptic consequences of breaking it.
Nevertheless, knife-edge results of the eleventh hour polls suggest Yes Scotland, too, has been hardly unimpeachable. Criticism has been largely focused on the flaws of Better Together due to the shock surge of support for independence, but the regain in support for the ‘No’ vote in the most recent polls are probably due to something other than the latest royal pregnancy. It seems likely that, having been caught by the emotional net of Salmond’s nationalism, ‘Yes’ voters may waver at the moment they are called to make such a risky decision. The future of Scotland’s relationship to the pound and the EU hangs in the balance, matters easily dismissed until the fog of blind hope has cleared and voters are shoving Scotland’s future into a ballot box. This doesn’t negate the success of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s emotional manipulation. Salmond has placed himself in opposition to Tory Westminster that so many north of the Border feel alienated from, painting a picture of a golden liberated Scotland free from the shackles of Southern rule. He’s tapped into a sleeping nationalism and estrangement which the Better Together campaign have done little to dispel.
However, beneath the wave of emotion there is a bed consisting of little more than shards of glass. ‘Yes’ campaign posters aim at the heart but evade the brain, consisting of often feeble evidence, if any. One such poster suggests that Scotland ‘become independent before 100,000 more children are in poverty’. It doesn’t take a political cynic to uncover the factual vacuum under the picture of dirty children’s shoes. Salmond can bluster all he likes but there is little doubt that, at least initially, Scotland’s economic future is more uncertain in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote than a ‘No’ vote, even if it does eventually manage to pick itself up into the blooming utopia that ‘Yes Scotland’ envisages. Analysis by Morag Gillespie, senior research fellow at the Scottish Poverty Information Unit, on behalf of the BBC, does not dispute the assumption of the number of children who will be mired in poverty according to recent benefit reforms, but this doesn’t mean that many more won’t be destitute if Scotland goes it alone. The image of mud-smudged buckled shoes and a frayed skirt hem is also a rather Victorian image of poverty which does little to create the impression of a clued-up, modern campaign.
Nevertheless, an overwhelming number of voters seem to have been able to overlook the factual vagaries of the ‘Yes’ campaign in favour of its warm-hearted philosophy, something the Better Together campaign may have been wise to imitate. They clearly clocked the approach Yes Scotland was taking and subsequently positioned themselves as a bastion of reason against the charging tide of emotion of Salmond’s ‘Yes’ camp. This should have worked, except that it’s quite difficult to deliver hard facts when you’re working with hypothesis and disputing factions. Better Together made strong economic arguments in an attempt to de-seat Yes Scotland but the endless parroting of these fell on increasingly deaf ears, as the squeaky protests of a broken record were drowned out by Salmond’s luring nationalist tune. Better Together’s case hasn’t been helped by the political factions of Westminster, which perhaps haven’t convinced cynical – particularly young – voters that the referendum is an issue above typical party politics. Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich, suggests that Westminster should have hugged and made up in the cause of rising above tribal in-fighting and uniting in defence against a common threat. Their failure to do so may have reinforced the sense that Westminster is a honey-pot of in-fighting and that the Better Together campaign has been tainted by political self-interest. Worse, the slow raising of heads down south in the early days of the campaign, and the maintenance of a snooty distance and attitude of letting the Scots sort it out for themselves, has exacerbated the exact perceptions that encouraged Scots to leave the Union in the first place. It seems unfair to blame it all on Darling; he did his best to convince of the economic uncertainty of an independent Scotland, but he was up against a smooth operator in the form of Alex Salmond, who had the expenses scandal and heart-strings on his side.
A recent BBC article examines the claims made by several posters for both campaigns, assessing their validity. The conclusions they make about posters both for and against independence make use of an awful lot of words like ‘probably’ and ‘unclear’. This is indicative of the blight of indecision and uncertainty that has marred both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps. Ultimately both are talking about an intensely complex hypothetical situation, and neither can offer guarantees. Yes Scotland has mired itself in nationalism and emotion with little hard evidence or a plan to make a ‘Yes’ vote credible. Better Together, meanwhile, has spouted facts and assertions without any emotional attempt to draw the breakaway Scots back into its arms. Come the eve of Thursday’s referendum, both may look back on the past couple of years with something touching on regret