Published on April 3rd, 2013 |
by Kelly Faulkner
Image © Flicktickr 2013
How soon is now? The Scottish referendum campaign has already begun
As at general elections, so with a referendum, the government always loses political control. This is despite the fact that the legalities of a referendum itself theoretically maintain government control as they are technically only advisory in nature because of the doctrine of “parliamentary sovereignty”. In reality though, only a very strong-willed or rather foolish administration would ignore the results of a referendum. Both sides will therefore be desperate to win and, with so much at stake for Scotland, it is perhaps inevitable that the respective campaigns will exploit whatever means necessary to succeed.
Though the (unimaginatively named) campaigns are not yet fully in motion, both ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘No Scotland’ have ceremoniously launched a countdown to the ‘big day’ in 18 months time. The date Alex Salmond has chosen (18th September 2014) is significant. Commentators have interpreted the selection of the date as an attempt to ‘maximise the impact of a summer of Scottishness’ marked by both the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth games and the 700th anniversary of the Scottish defeat of the English in the Battle of Bannockburn. However a bigger historical event is set to triumph over the “Yes” campaign’s agenda, as the 75th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany will take place at the beginning of September. Expect the pro-UK Better Together campaign to make extensive use of images of Churchill, even though he did not become Prime Minister until 1940. Indeed, the date of the referendum highlights but one of many nuances that each campaign must utilise effectively in order to capitalise on the growing number of undecided voters. More worryingly, it dictates the overly emotive tone that is likely to be a feature of both campaigns. The dubious conduct of the campaigns in the last UK referendum (on the AV voting system) shows that the vehemence of the debate itself can cover-up the real issues. The Yes and No to AV campaigns did not just exaggerate or obfuscate the issues but built their arguments around claims that were either purposefully misleading or completely made-up.
Campaigns of misinformation dangerously detract from the merits of each argument and, more importantly, from the fundamental democratic purpose of a referendum. Hopefully both Unionists and Nationalists alike will take note of these lessons provided by the 2011 AV referendum as a warning of how not to run a campaign:
1. Steer away from anti-politics
The decision not to campaign on the merits of electoral reform, but rather to offer AV as the answer to the expenses scandal is arguably the real reason why the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign was defeated in such a resounding manner. The message to ‘make lazy MPs work harder’ failed to chime with reality and alienated potential allies such as academics and MPs; a crucial set of campaigners with vast campaign experience. Scottish nationalists must beware of assertions such as ‘they can take our lives, but they can never take our freedom.’
2. Don’t ignore the tried and tested
A deep-rooted culture of incompetence lay at the heart of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. Integral to most campaigns is the freepost mail they are permitted to use. The Yes campaign was so obsessed with fighting a new style of campaign that they ignored traditional and effective measures like freepost. Meanwhile the No campaign maximised cost-efficiency, ensuring that doormats nationwide were furnished with an image of Nick Clegg with the headline ‘AV leads to broken promises.’ The failure to use freepost was a huge strategic error: for this decision alone they deserved to lose.
3. Pick your celebrity endorsements wisely
When it comes to politics, academic research confirms that celebrities fail to influence voters effectively and they particularly disengage those who want a clear direction from each party. Independence, like electoral reform, is an issue that cuts through party lines and on unfamiliar issues voters take note of experienced politicians rather than sports personalities and comedians, who were used by both sides in the AV referendum.
A referendum is not a normal election campaign. The availability of adequate and impartial education for voters is of critical importance. Without the availability of information, the referendum is pointless. The question ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ must be accompanied by a full explanation, so all of these matters can be weighed before the vote takes place. The use of referenda for important constitutional questions is good but only if they are preceded by a sensible campaign of information. The most difficult aspect of any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.