THE First Minister’s announcement that the SNP Government intends to seek a section 30 order to hold a second independence referendum contained within it a few hints about the key messages of a future Yes campaign.
In 2014 it had one key weakness – arguments about risk – and one key strength – arguments about a better society. The speech shows an effort to neutralise the weakness and play up the strength.
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With surveys in the field in the final four weeks of the 2014 referendum campaign and again after the referendum the Scottish Referendum Study (SRS) sought to explain why people voted the way they did. We know that attitudes to risk and uncertainty helped determine voters’ decision in 2014 – those more risk-averse were less likely to vote Yes. We also know, however, that particular risks mattered to particular voters; those worried about the currency were less likely to vote for change for example.
We also know that attitudes to EU membership featured as possible risks for both sides of the argument. Yes voters backed an independent Scotland in part because they feared that the UK would take itself out of the EU. No voters backed the Union because they feared an independent Scotland would find itself out of the EU.
By casting the choice facing Scots not as one of a certain future versus uncertain change, but as two possible paths, both involving some measure of change, the choice for voters hinges less obviously on risk. In a manner reminiscent of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, continuing without change is framed as the uncertain choice, with change portrayed as a path out of uncertainty towards stability.
The other thing we know is that support for the Yes campaign – previously hovering in the mid-30s – increased when it started to highlight the risks of the Union. Central to this were claims that the gap between rich and poor would widen if Scotland remained in the UK.
Our SRS results are clear – the argument about an independent Scotland offering a different vision of society, one in which the gap between rich and poor was smaller, was not only a predictor of support for Yes but was gaining traction as referendum day approached.
By referring to the type of Scotland we want to be – one that is “open, welcoming, diverse and fair” – Nicola Sturgeon was picking up where Yes Scotland left off in 2014, and using an argument that had been pulling voters towards her campaign.
Changes in context are relevant. The No arguments from 2014 about the risk of economic uncertainty – that we’re better off pooling our power in larger entities – will ring slightly hollow given the uncertainty over Brexit.
In light of this should we assume a likely Yes victory? Not necessarily. First, the No arguments about low public appetite for a referendum are not to be dismissed. Initial interest in holding a snap independence poll immediately following the June referendum dissipated and there is now limited appetite for another referendum – with opinion divided on timing even among those who want one.
There is also the undeniable fact that support for independence hovers between 43 and 50 per cent. As late as June 2014 support for Yes was in the low- to mid-30s. It therefore increased 10-15 percentage points by referendum day. It is unlikely we will see similar movement and likely that we are facing a situation more akin to 1995 in Quebec (where, two months out, Yes and No were pretty level).
It’s worth noting, however, that the substantial jump in Yes support occurred despite a Labour Party in rather better shape than it is now, and facing, arguably, the full attention of the UK Government. A Brexit-bound UK Government and a Labour Party in utter meltdown presents a rather different opposition. That said, the Scottish Conservatives are now in a far stronger position and Unionists will likely hope this enhanced popularity will rub off on any No campaign.
What of a straight re-run of the best No and Yes arguments from 2014? The shine might well have come off the threats of uncertainty post-Brexit but No claims about currency – and now oil – are generally unaffected by Brexit, and uncertainty over currency was responsible for a large portion of the No support. On the Yes side, arguments about narrowing the gap between rich and poor may lack credibility in the light of negative data about educational attainment in schools or access to university places. For both sides, there remain unanswered questions about trading relations with the EU or with an rUK that is outside the Single Market.