Don’t blame the voters: Reflections on the failure of the ‘yes’ campaign

I wrote before the recent referendum about my views as an undecided voter and suggested that I was tending to ‘no’. Like the majority of Scots, I voted ‘no’. As an ex-SNP voter and an instinctive independence sympathiser, I want to reflect here why the ‘yes’ campaign failed to convince me and the majority of Scots of their message.

Simplistically, perhaps, voters in the referendum could be classified into three groups. Nationalists, who would always vote for independence, unionists who would always vote for the union and a group in the middle who will listen to and be influenced by arguments. I suspect this middle group is the biggest group – clearly it is the group who need to be convinced when such a major political change is proposed.

To convince people, like myself, there needs to be both an emotional argument for independence and pragmatic arguments to back this up. These have to demonstrate that, for the majority of citizens, independence will improve their lives or, at the very least, not make them worse. What ‘improvement’ means – depends on the individual – for many it means material improvement; for some it means a more ‘civic’ society; for others it means a society that focuses more on environmental issues.

The ‘yes’ campaign had a fantastic emotional appeal – as Salmond said, who would not want to have control of their own country?  I completely support the notion of local democracy and I hope that a consequence of more devolution for Scotland is that the legitimate demands of English voters for a say is recognised. But, on the 2nd point, the ‘yes’ campaign utterly failed. The believed that the emotional appeal would carry the day but ignored our history of Scottish pragmatism – the canny Scot is not just an invention of the Sunday Post.

Where did the ‘yes’ campaign go wrong?

Firstly, it adopted fixed but fundamentally indefensible positions. Its position on the currency is an example of this. Instead of saying that there will be a currency union and therefore prompting a negative response, a far better position would have been to say that we believe that keeping the pound is in the best interests of both Scotland and the other countries in the UK and we will enter into negotiations about the best way to do this. Telling the EU that Scotland will be a member instead of saying that we want to negotiate interim membership until membership formalities have been completed is another example of unwise intransigence.

Secondly, whilst optimism is a very positive characteristic, when it comes to economics, it is better to hope for the best but plan for the worst. Instead of producing figures and data of how the Scottish economy could thrive at a lower level of oil production than assumed, the tactic of the ‘yes’ campaign was simply to deny the problem. Instead of ignoring the fact that the currency policy would have problems for financial institutions, this should have been recognised and positive incentives proposed to keep operations in Scotland even although headquarters were moved elsewhere.

Thirdly, there was never any acknowledgement that independence in a globalised world has to be limited. We may dislike the fact that the international financial markets can make or break a country (I do) but there is no point in denying that it’s true. Few countries, apart perhaps from North Korea, are truly independent and a failure to acknowledge this is, I believe, simply insulting to Scottish citizens.

There were many other, perhaps less significant mistakes. Although controlling a lunatic fringe is very difficult (and from the events in Glasgow, it is clear there is a lunatic fringe on both sides), the condemnation of the cybernats from the ‘yes’ campaign was half-hearted; equating a ‘no’ vote with a lack of confidence was again insulting.

Had the ‘yes’ campaign thought through its economic policies and showed some evidence that they understood the fundamentals of negotiation, then I believe it would have had a much more convincing case. People like myself would have been far more willing to accept independence if there had been any evidence that the people who would be in charge of negotiations had any idea of what they were doing.

I believe that the blame here must fall squarely on Alex Salmond’s shoulders. His personality drove the campaign and, from all reports, opposition to his views was simply not tolerated. He is an excellent speaker, is, I think, devoted to Scotland and has a big personality. He believed that this would be enough to carry the day but failed to understand that his case lacked the essential foundations to make it convincing. He didn’t do his homework and consequently deserved to fail.

7 thoughts on “Don’t blame the voters: Reflections on the failure of the ‘yes’ campaign

  • September 20, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Well as an English man living in Wales I was only on the periphery of all this but your analysis seems spot on.

  • September 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    Dear prof. Sommerville,

    I was educated with your books, so I write this with the utmost respect. However, with regard to your arguments:

    Firstly, I don’t for a single minute believe that you would seriously think that the SNP (or whatever government after it) would believe that they would just go in and take what they like, without negotiation. I think this much is self-evident and anyone in their right mind would not need that explained to them. If I am not wrong, the Yes people did mention that there are more alternatives than one, but pushed for what they thought was the better option and argued as to why they thought it was attainable. For the record I would have preferred Scotland to get its own currency, but that’s another matter.

    Secondly, I do agree and would have also liked to hear more about contingency plans. But ultimately, the concept of independence cannot be judged simply on economic principles alone, or have its value so strongly undermined by the prospect of individual economic welfare (let us not forget how many here live below the poverty line). Particularly when it is evident that the Scottish vote has never had any impact on UK politics and will continue, under the Union, not to have one. This should have been the focus of the debate and not the economic principle. You have to wonder, how many of the ex-British colonies, although under great financial and humanitarian distress, would willingly relinquish their ability to independently decide their own affairs to a London government.

    Thirdly, again I think this much is also self-evident and I don’t think anybody here suggested or dreamed of a Scotland totally cut-off from the rest of the world. I don’t think that the Yes campaign needed to explain as such, unless it truly believed that the majority of Scots are that simple.

    If you look at Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum survey, it is clear that the referendum was lost due to old-age pensioners but above all, concerns over the financial situation of Scotland. Just look at the stats: 57% of no voters were worried about the “pound” (compared to just 7% of young ones). In contrast, younger voters were mostly concerned by Westminster politics (74%) compared to just 4% of old voters.

    Yesterday we witnessed the death of ideals, so lucidly evident throughout British society, the vote was nothing but a reflection of a culture that puts the individual’s self-interest over and above anything else. The No voters are not to blame – this is the way they were brought up and how they were taught to think over the last 30-odd years.

    That Yes indeed reflected strongly in the vote of younger generations is a glimmer of hope and they are the ones that Salmond managed to insipire. The blame rests not on his shoulders – how easy, if at all possible a task would it have been to convert old, sclerotic minds? Instead we should thank him for opening the eyes of those who tomorrow will be called to take the wheel.

    • September 20, 2014 at 11:38 pm


      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. The points you make are essentially from an emotional perspective – and I recognise the validity of that. But what I wanted to get over in my post was that for a large number of voters, emotional arguments have to be backed up with information that will allow them to decide that a particular political position is to their benefit. It is not fair to categorise this, as you do, as the individual’s self-interest. A shipyard worker (for example) who stands to lose their job with the consequent effects on their families because of independence has a right to know what the alternative will be.

      I don’t know if you have read the White Paper produced by the SNP. I have read it and, as an engineer, was appalled by the lack of numbers and coherent economic analysis. I did not vote ‘no’ because of my own economic position – which would not be significantly different one way or another. I voted ‘no’ because I did not believe that independence would lead to an improvement in the lives of poorer people – quite the contrary. Improving their lives depends on better education within a stronger economy (not more welfare) and what was striking about the White paper was a complete lack of recognition of this.

      Where I must disagree with you is in your characterisation of older people as lacking ideals and having ‘sclerotic’ minds. The ideals of the older generation led to the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state as we know it. The ideals of my generation in the 6o’s led to a society where women are no longer 2nd class citizens and we have far more tolerance of difference – be that of skin colour, religious belief or sexual preference. I hope that the ideals of today’s generation have as far-reaching effects. In Eastern societies, older people are respected because their experience is seen to lead to wisdom and it is rather a pity in our society that their opinions are denigrated.

      I think it is unwise to assume that because young people voted for independence now it is a foregone conclusion in future. As people get older, their views and priorities change and they will expect a much more convincing and insightful analysis than has been presented to us.

      Salmond made a superb job of presenting the emotional argument for independence. He ultimately failed because his arguments lacked depth and rigour and this was recognised by a great many people.

  • September 21, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    A wonderful response, for which I am thankful.

    Here you make a distinction, between the emotional and rational arguments, as they were presented. Emotional, insofar as considering a state of independence an argument that appears to morality and sentiment. Rational, when you consider economic well-being as a precondition for being able to help those most in need in society. While this distinction might appear reasonable at first, in reality, this I find the dilemma to be false. The “emotional” argument is, in fact, the most rational of arguments to make. I read the white paper and noticed the same things you mention, but ultimately, these details, though it would have been good to read more about, mattered little. Let me explain why.

    As in any system that’s in the process of being designed, one must start with requirements elicitation. What kind of system do we want to build? What are the goals of this system and its intended function? Who must this system serve? By setting the principles under which the system must function and getting the stakeholders to agree to these, we can start choosing the necessary tools with which to build this system.

    Here, in this system which we call a society, it is of utmost importance that we define the rules and principles under which the system must operate. The ability for a country to manage its own affairs and not have policy dictated to it by other centres of power, is the sole pre-requisite for this to happen. If you cannot have complete control over deciding the courses of action you wish to take, then efforts in building a system that fulfils your aspirations will be continuously impeded.

    Institutions such as the parliament and how it is elected, the legal system and a guarantee of its independence from political or other influence, a functioning press and media system that offers impartial information to citizens, are the foundations on top of which a society has to be built and operate. If any of these foundations are lacking in integrity (e.g. see the Lords system, or the absence of a constitution), then the goals of the societal system will forever be subverted by those with enough power or interest to exert influence.

    One of the goals of society is to guaranteed the ability of each citizen to equitably and freely participate in what is known as “the economy”. A functioning economy which generates surpluses, from which taxation can be extracted and re-invested in public services and infrastructures, is a crucial tool with which the goals of the society can be achieved. But the economy is not by itself a goal. First we must decide how to share any wealth that is accumulated in this country, be it large or small. Then we have to look at how we can maximize this wealth. In cases where the reverse is done, i.e. taking care of the economy first and having the re-distribution of wealth as an afterthought, history shows that we ended up with great inequalities. Take America for example, arguably a country with immense wealth – but how is this shared? I’ve been and seen the mighty skyscrapers and the homeless masses two blocks away. In India, I saw the wonderful constructions of a rapidly growing economy, lined with the millions of rag-clothed and barefoot souls. Are there ever any chances there that those few who control the majority of wealth, would ever agree willingly to give it up so it can be shared more equitably? Hence the lobbying, the financing of political candidates etc.

    The argument for independence was thus entirely rational, and not emotional. Independence was and remains the correct first step to take. If a sound political basis is not set in this country, there will be little hope, ever, of helping those most in need, or setting up a system which treats citizens fairly and guarantees decent living conditions for all.

    Much of my life, as an engineer, is spent towards setting the proper foundations for systems to be built. I am disappointed that the yes campaign got dragged into focusing solely on the tools which would be later used to support society. There is little doubt that Scotland would continue to be a more prosperous country than many others in Europe, even if the worst-case case scenario for its economy materialised. What needed to be more clearly explained, is that the economy matters little if wealth is not produced in a system built on solid political and legal foundations.

    This much is clear to me not only from theory, but from my country of origin (Greece), where I have witnessed the moral collapse of the political and legal system, which not only led to the country’s plight, but also the destruction of its economy as well as the pointless austerity which has achieved absolutely nothing (by all accounts, quantifiable and qualitative) in the last 5 years. The crisis, not only in Greece but worldwide, was primarily a political and institutional crisis and it will continue to linger, as long as the primary causes that enabled the uncontrollable operation of financial institutions are not removed.

    With regard to older voters, I come from a place were elders are respected in a way that is unfamiliar to the UK, for things they did in the past and the struggles they fought to bring the world to where it is now. But wisdom is not taken for granted, for their experience is valuable, but not always applicable to a world that no longer resembles the one they were brought up in. I hope you do not take offence in my point, because I didn’t mean disrespect.

    Kind regards

  • September 21, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Ian, next time (or maybe even now) you should be more active. I agree with all that you say above. Next time (or maybe even now) you should get in there and strengthen the argument. Rather than stand on the sideline, get in there!

  • September 22, 2014 at 12:35 am

    I truly enjoyed reading your reflections, very thoughtful. Emotional appeals for political and economic affairs, I simply dislike them. Political affairs and Economics need to be more serious than just manipulation of emotions of masses.

    Emotional manipulation of masses; I dislike it.

    In any case, while manipulating emotions of masses in the referendum, I feel politicians made other mistakes; they forgot important profiles of people who had the right to vote. t looks they forgot that some people who voted were Scottish indeed but with family links to British people (i.e. Scottish people with at least one parent and/or children and/or brothers/sisters and/or husband/wife who were English/Welsh/Irish; furthermore this immediate family are living perhaps in the UK but not in Scotland). Why these people who voted would be easily touched by emotional links to nationalism when their family and themselves are somehow attached/linked/related to and benefited by the UK as a whole? how many people who live in Scotland and who were able to vote are or feel 100% Scottish? It also looks these politicians forgot that some people who voted were not even Scottish as I understood; why these people would be emotionally attached to an independent Scotland?. They forgot these profiles, and these profiles may not be highly motivated by an independent Scotland but by a prosperous UK (as it would benefit their whole immediate family). I feel the number of people with those profiles aren’t few. The above plus what you explained were mistakes in the arguments of the SNP.

  • October 17, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    A very constructive post. My thoughts on why YES lost are as follows:

    Firstly, it’s not a mystery that the over 65’s were the biggest stumbling block (and the largest block of NO voters) mainly because they were too afraid, too conservative-minded (not in the Tory sense, but the “I’ve done alright out of the Union and feel I have too much to lose” sense) or entrenched in loyalty to the Union (lived through the war, etc.)

    Secondly – and this is where I feel they could have overcome the pensioner vote – the centrist (a broad church often held together by their common goal) SNP getting into bed with the ultra-liberal Greens and far-left Marxist SSP, dragged the YES campaign to the left and, worst of all, excluded the centre-right alternative offered by the new party, the Scottish Democratic Alliance (more on them below) and marginalised libertarian think-tanks like Wealthy Nation and only used Business for Scotland in the frontline in the last fortnight or so.

    My point being… they were right to include the Greens and SSP in YES Scotland, insofar as it showed diversity beyond the SNP (thus countering the NO side’s “it’s a vote for Salmond”), BUT they created an image that Scotland would be a socialist republic, rather than the (most likely) outcome of independence, which would have seen a cross-pollination of ideas from across the spectrum and thus a re-alignment of politics here altogether.

    So, with regards to the likes of BfS and Wealthy Nation, they offered a really good counter to the increasingly centralised government of the SNP (and the even more intrusive government proposed by their leftist partners). The SDA could also have been a real alternative to the 16-18% who vote Tory in both WM and Holyrood elections (just over 400000 people) despite knowing that party are toxic in Scotland and will remain forever so. Put simply, they vote for the only visible centre-right party (UKIP excepted) and here is where the SDA offered a REAL alternative and with a “real independence” model too… outside the EU (a la Norway and Switzerland) and with our own currency. I know they wouldn’t have swayed all of them, but tell me I’m wrong when I say a large part of the 400K who vote Tory habitually wouldn’t have been?!

    In conclusion, I admire Salmond et al for the way they carried – and almost succeeded with – the “independence-lite” model, but next time the push for independence will need to be more inclusive, more diverse, more mindful of the sizeable comfortable middle classes and their aspirations, and ultimately much more radical.


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