Matthew Elliott is Chief Executive of Business for Britain.
As we digest the constitutional impact of the last minute promises made to Scotland to keep the Union together, we must not allow the other referendum promised to voters to slip our minds. Studying the Scottish Referendum campaign reveals important lessons for how Britain should conduct its next referendum; the one on our membership of the EU. These lessons should not only inform how EU campaigners approach the referendum, but also what must be done to ensure that voters are presented with a genuine, informed choice when they are finally given a chance to vote on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Here are my initial thoughts on the ten lessons we should take away from the #indyref:
1. By defining independence as Yes, Salmond set the terms of debate in his favour
The question had a big impact on how the campaigns were conducted. “Should Scotland be an independent country?” played into the Yes campaign’s hands. “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?” would have made for a very different campaign for both sides. Fighting for Yes has inherent advantages compared to fighting for No, and Alex Salmond made the most of owning the positive side of the debate. This would suggest that the In campaign in an EU Referendum would be helped by the question in the EU Referendum Bill being: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
2. A decision about who can vote must be made early as it will be controversial
Not only was Salmond allowed to choose the question, but he also defined who had a right to vote in the referendum. He added 16 and 17 year olds to the franchise while excluding those Scots living elsewhere in the UK and further afield. Those 16 and 17 year olds voted by a margin of 71 per cent to 29 per cent in favour of independence, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling. The decision to disenfranchise Scots living in England was particularly controversial amongst this community and the negotiations over the franchise for an EU referendum will be equally controversial. To dampen any controversy, this decision should be taken early on and made in consultation with representatives of both sides of the EU debate.
3. A positive message is key, but negative campaigning was effective for both sides
In broad brush terms, the Yes campaign was seen as positive and emotionally engaging whilst the No campaign was portrayed as negative and overly analytical. A negative campaign can be seen as offering little hope, and scaremongering can work, but the victory of the No campaign should not be seen simply as a victory of negative over positive campaigning. The No campaign identified that it lacked a positive message as the polls began to narrow, hence David Cameron and Gordon Brown’s emotional pleas in the closing days of the campaign. Nor was the Yes campaign only positive. Those in favour of independence were very effective at exploiting anti-Tory, anti-Thatcher and anti-Westminster feelings north of the border, plus fears over the NHS. Campaigners on both sides in an EU Referendum will want to put a positive message at the heart of their campaigns, but must also recognise the effectiveness of the anti-politics message and the vulnerability of their campaigns to negative campaigning if they fail to answer fundamental questions (such as Yes’s inability to deal with the currency issue).
4. Both options in a referendum should be clearly defined
What happened in Scotland is a prime example of why two clearly defined outcomes need to be settled before an EU Referendum takes place. The last minute concessions by the No side and the confusion of the Yes campaign on key issues starkly shows how a referendum should not be conducted if voters are to be allowed to make an informed decision. The fact that much of the campaign was a battle over what an independent Scotland might look like, rather than the relative merits of the two options on the ballot paper, was in part a result of Salmond’s failure to conclusively deal with many issues such as the future of North Sea oil, the allocation of the UK national debt and prospects of border controls between England and Scotland. But the Better Together campaign also faced serious confusion over what it stood for and many postal ballots were cast before Gordon Brown outlined the new settlement for Scotland and the three party leaders made their “Vow”. The goal posts changed on both sides. It was a messy campaign and ordinary voters were the losers.
For an EU referendum, it would be far more preferable to have two clearly defined options. For such momentous decision, voters deserve concrete alternatives with clear definitions, allowing the debate to be about two precise positions, thereby reducing the scope for mudslinging and the spread of misinformation. The In position should be based on a clearly defined renegotiated deal for Britain with the EU, with the relevant Treaty changes clearly outlined, rather than simply aspirations for future reform. And the Out position should also be concrete. For example, in conjunction with the renegotiation, it could be agreed with other EU member states that were the UK to vote to leave the EU, it would still retain its membership of the European Economic Area.
A clearly-defined, informed debate makes for a better referendum and enhances the validity of the result. The Scottish referendum was historic but the EU referendum will be the biggest decision the whole of the UK will face for a generation. Knowing the policy implications for both an In and Out vote is vital. The electorate shouldn’t be forced to choose between vague promises of EU reform and an uncertain future on the outside. The Government should present the electorate with two clear options.
5. A campaign will struggle to win without newspaper support
The press played a central role in the Scottish referendum. The main analysis and comment of the campaigns was provided by the media. The head to head debates were especially scrutinised with print journalists being the main commentators on the performance of the respective campaigns on the night, particularly through the use of instant post-debate polling. The press reaction to the opinion polls more widely was also highly influential and the panic caused by the first poll to show Yes ahead created a fear that sent all three main party leaders rushing to Scotland to enter last minute campaigning for the Union.
Broadly, newspapers either did not take a stance on the referendum, with many – ranging from the Guardian to the Daily Telegraph – backing Better Together. Only one paper, The Herald, supported Yes. This had strong parallels to the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the Common Market, when only The Spectator, the Morning Star and Tribune supported the No side. While broadcasters are subject to strict impartiality rules during such campaigns, attracting the mainstream support of newspapers is crucial for any future EU referendum campaign. If a campaign does not garner the explicit backing of several national newspapers (and those who finance them) they will face an uphill battle to win a referendum.
6. Social media is an influential source of information that campaigns can harness
Social media played a crucial role in the referendum. Both campaigns heavily utilised Twitter and Facebook. Unavailable at previous comparable referendums (such as the 1975 Common Market referendum and the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s secession from Canada) it was arguably as important as the main stream media in forming people’s views this time around. This was in part driven by a distrust of the more established media by many Yes voters, who relied on information direct from the Yes campaign and supportive blogs that was then rapidly disseminated through social media.
Social media allowed campaigns to get their message out quickly and counteract the announcements of their opponents. Prominent supporters of the No campaign were often accessible to Yes activists via social media which meant that declarations of support for the Union were never made in isolation and without fear of challenge. And the Yes campaign cleverly rebutted Better Together’s fear campaign with humour.
Political parties have vastly improved their use and understanding of the power of social media since the last general election. Campaigners in an EU Referendum who ignore the ability to feed information directly into the newsfeeds of voters at a time when distrust of mainstream media is increasing will find themselves at a significant disadvantage.
7. Single figure led campaigns provide a focal point for debate but can result in internal rifts
Until Gordon Brown’s intervention in the final days of the campaign, the Scottish Referendum was a battle between two figures. In the Yes camp was Alex Salmond, versus Alistair Darling on the No side. These two figures were totems of their respective campaigns, but their party political backgrounds immediately made the referendum a party political fight. It would have been a very different campaign on both sides had they chosen more independent figures. The campaigns in an EU referendum will include many spokespeople, but they might very well be tempted to appoint independent figureheads, free of the shackles of party politics and able to represent the people effectively. The choice of these figureheads will inevitably be controversial and would have a significant impact on the fortunes of the campaigns. However, given the intense scrutiny associated with referendum campaigns, selected an untested independent figurehead can have its downsides too.
It is also worth noting that the Better Together campaign was much more of an Establishment campaign compared to the North East Says No campaign or NOtoAV. This made it easy for the Yes campaign to take the mantle of being on the side of the people. It also meant that Better Together suffered from a slow decision making process and internal spats in a way that Yes did not.
8. Celebrities will garner media coverage, both good and bad
With about six weeks to go, the No side clearly got worried that they were not showing mass appeal and launched a swathe of celebrities into the fray. Many of the celebrities were English and did not appear to increase support for No. They did, however, deliver media coverage for their cause, with Dan Snow in particular gaining the No campaign precious air time. Other endorsements were treated with derision or worse and were quickly forgotten. During the final days of the Better Together campaign, a few selected celebrities were reintroduced but instead focused on addressing their own subjects – historians on history, businessmen on business and so on. In an EU Referendum, celebrities will again no doubt share their views. But these interventions have more impact when the person is speaking about an area they have expertise in, rather than just being a famous face.
9. The business community will play an important role in the debate
The No victory was greatly helped by the interventions of businesses, commenting on their likely decisions following a Yes vote. By bringing out the big beasts of FTSE100 companies to say prices would increase and jobs would be lost, the Better Together campaign successfully reinforced their ‘If you don’t know, vote No’ message. Having the likes of RBS and M&S at the forefront of the campaign certainly influenced voter intentions, particularly those of female voters. For much of the campaign, the pro-independence Business for Scotland was able to neutralise the impact of the various pro-Union business interventions, but the continued uncertainty about what a Yes vote would mean, particularly in relation to the currency issue, meant that in the final weeks these interventions became more powerful and drove the media narrative of the campaign.
Business opinion in an EU referendum is likely to be even more important but much more divided. With EU rules and regulations affecting various types of business in different ways, there is unlikely to be a clear consensus of business opinion. Much will depend on how effectively campaigners present their case, rather than mass adherence to a pre-determined ‘business view’.
10. Single polls have the ability to dramatically change a campaign, but the betting markets provide a better forecast
The polls, which started with an over 20 point lead for Better Together, narrowed significantly in the finals stages of the campaign. Polling in one part of the UK alone made the polls in the independence referendum less reliable than their general election counterparts. However, the effect of individual polls was huge. As the lead tightened – and one poll even edged Yes ahead – the Westminster leaders panicked and started to promise concessions that would not have been considered when No was comfortably in the lead. Throughout the campaign though, the more settled prediction of the betting markets ultimately came to pass. In fact, some bookies paid out early on No and stood to lose a large amount of money had Yes won. The lesson for an EU campaign? Sometimes it is best to trust those willing to put their money where their mouth is.