Lessons from the Scottish referendum

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It is just over a month since the people of Scotland made their decision to stay in the United Kingdom.

The final result was – in referendum terms – something close to a landslide, with “No” finishing 10.7% ahead. Perhaps that was not as big a victory as had been hoped for even two months earlier, but it was enough to encourage many to say they had known all along Scotland would indeed, to use David Bowie’s words, “stay with us”.

From the point of view of some commentators and businesses the outcome may have seemed obvious from the start. Splitting the world’s most successful single market, injecting massive currency, regulatory and political uncertainty and pegging your future to the value of the rapidly diminishing North Sea Oil reserves seemed so ridiculous that many thought it unnecessary to speak out.

Yet in the end many did join the debate and they did so not because they thought they were backing a winning proposition in opposing the UK’s break up, but because they were worried they were about to end up on the losing side without having said a word.

Understanding why that was, and why the “Yes” campaign propelled what many regarded as, at best, an eccentric idea to the point where their opponents seemed to be in the midst of a frenzied panic, is what I want to look at here – because I think the Scottish referendum campaign tells us a lot about the contours of public policy debate in the future: and much of it is far from good news.

I have four, related, propositions to make.

Firstly, in the future, all stories, even the made up ones, will be famous for 15 minutes. It is not that long ago that I remember celebrating the way that the Internet had broken down the people’s deference to the professional closed shops that denied them choice and autonomy. The classic case was the medical profession, where doctors were confronted with patients newly armed with self-diagnoses informed not by old wives’ tales, but credible websites.

In the referendum, though, this questioning of existing authority became something much uglier – a lack of respect for the very idea of any authority. In short, any rumour or conspiracy theory could be treated as fact and believed by many.

Since the referendum result was declared this has manifested itself in a belief that the whole poll was rigged – as though Alex Salmond was all along an agent of Unionism.

Before polling day the focus was on oil – with members of the Scottish parliament putting their names on leaflets claiming there were secret reserves of oil off the coast of Ayrshire or endorsing bizarre theories that the Prime Minister was actively engaged in a conspiracy to hush up details of a massive new oil field found to the West of the Shetlands.

These ideas did not just circulate on social media – the BBC felt compelled to treat the latter story as though it had merit and asked people about it.

The whacko world of 9/11 “truthers” and “birtherism” came to Britain and played a real part in deciding the biggest issue facing the country since the end of the Second World War.

Secondly, on the Internet, all ideas are created equally. Lots of voters, but especially “Yes” voters, prided themselves on the “research” they undertook before deciding how to vote. And, truly, many Scots did treat this momentous question with the seriousness it deserved.

But, when asked to research a question, what is the first thing you do today? It is not to go to the library or to ask an acknowledged expert, but to fire up your favourite browser and type a search term into Google.

What comes next is crucial. If you are a school student researching, say, Pythagoras’s Theorem, you’ll get a Wikipedia article and links to some quite good graphics illustrating the sum of squares rule. But type a term that relates to an ongoing political controversy and you are in the lap of the gods – or rather you are standing downwind of who can shout loudest. And in the Scottish case the loudest shouters were very much the Yes campaign.

As just one example, towards the very end of the campaign, Ipsos Mori published the results of a focus group into why people were switching from No to Yes – and sure enough one person was quoted as saying their “online research” had convinced them that “Westminster” had declared the waters off the coast of Fife (in central Scotland) to be English and they were going to vote against that.

Of course, there is no such declaration. What he plainly had seen was a claim by a Yes conspiracist about some secret plan. But, on the Internet, there is nothing much to tell you whether any particular idea is barmy or rational.

Thirdly, if you don’t like these facts, why not make your own? French postmodern theorists resisted the idea of objective facts, claiming that all ideas are merely “narratives” promoted by elites. And Yes campaigners in the Scottish referendum proved to be excellent pupils of Lyotard and Baudrillard by simply creating their own narratives through a small number of very high profile blogs.

These sites – particularly Wings over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia – grew to be huge and well-funded, via crowd-sourcing, operations. Feeding and feeding-off the obvious anger of many Yes campaigners, they proved to be both the exo-skeleton of sprawling Yes campaign and lenses that focused all the issues that angered and motivated Yes voters. In short, you were quite likely to end up on one of these sites if and when you did that “research”.

Fourthly, you do not have to believe in anything as long as you believe in us. The Yes campaign was highly motivated and very big, in terms of its street presence at least. But what did they all believe in? Not very much beyond the idea that Scottish independence was the answer to more or less any given problem.

At the same time that Alex Salmond was arguing that an independent Scotland could surf a global oil boom, the leader of the Scottish Greens was saying an independent Scotland could end its dependence on fossil fuels. Far left parties claimed a Yes vote “guaranteed” thousands of additional civil service jobs, while the governing Nationalists committed to making the private sector, fired by tax cuts, the engine of jobs growth.

Perhaps the No campaign could have done a better job in exposing these obvious contradictions and so forced at least one group of Yes supporters to confront the reality that they were on a hiding to nothing. But, regardless, the ethereal nature of so much of the campaign – conducted through social media – meant there were a limited number of hard targets for No to hit.

The approach of newspapers and broadcasters, desperate to look relevant to younger audiences, to social media did not help. Despite actually very few Scots being regular users of Twitter, it took on a special significance and that only served to emphasise that who could make the most noise online mattered almost as much as the quality of their arguments. What is more, the Yes campaign skilfully tried to turn the whole issue into a horserace, discount rational argument and only rely on emotion and energy.

They failed, of course. Facts carried more weight than they had hoped and the Yes campaign’s inability to give credible answers to some core economic questions – especially about what currency an independent Scotland would use, cost them dear.

All of which leads to me to a final conclusion. Which is one should never elevate tactics over strategy. The No campaign stuck doggedly to its strategy of hitting hard on the core economic questions and that was undoubtedly the right thing to do – after all they won. A better campaign might have had a more flexible response to the four horsemen of the Yes apocalypse discussed above, but a No campaign which abandoned its strategic vision to just hit at the latest conspiracy stupidity, fact-free assertion or contradictory comment from its opponents would have ended up losing the voters’ attention and the public’s vote.

No’s focus on continuing to ask the small number of really difficult questions for Yes was about more that getting their voice heard amongst all the shouting: it was a reminder to the voters that facts and assertions are not the same.

It had been a long, and at times desperate, struggle, but No’s discipline saw them through. That is worth remembering in any future public campaign no matter how far from Scotland.