Only a fool would call the Scottish independence referendum at this distance

“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled –
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led –
Welcome to your gory bed.
Or to victorie!”

Punditry is not an art that suits the modest. Anyone asking people to take time and trouble to read their writing, let alone expecting them to pay for the privilege, is usually best advised to claim some sort of special knowledge or insight that repays the time invested in reading their thoughts. In that context, I suppose I can’t be surprised at the number of confident predictions being made about the Scottish independence referendum. Yet, as David Cameron’s intervention yesterday showed, the world is full of unknown unknowns, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s much parodied but actually sensible phrase.

We are still somewhere between 2 and 4 years away from a referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland has never had a border poll before. Nobody knows how the referendum campaign will proceed, although given the radically different constellation of forces on the ‘Yes’ side, it will almost certainly be very different to the devolution campaign in 1997. Beyond that, a veritable horde of unknown unknowns lurk in the shadows. Only a fool or an owner of a crystal ball would attempt to call the result.

I was speaking to an intelligent and well-read friend about the political situation in Scotland recently, a thoughtful and detribalised NI unionist, and he just shrugged his shoulders at one point and said, “The UK is screwed, isn’t it?” I’m not so sure it is. In democratic and prosperous societies, true radicalism is rarely popular for its own sake and inertia always starts with a significant advantage; waverers will always be tempted to stick with the devil they know, especially when they understand that in a democracy, there can always be another chance if circumstances change.

Scottish nationalists must be wary of being led by defeatist Unionist commentators into the inevitability trap. There is nothing inevitable about Scottish independence. Nationalists face a long, uphill, struggle. Polling is consistently against them, and even in the wave election of 2011, the SNP’s vote added to that of other pro-Independence candidates didn’t quite reach 50%. While it is entirely possible that the pro-independence campaign might catch a sudden change of mood, it is equally possible that a popular and domestically well-regarded Nationalist government will simply fail to get a border poll through. This happened in Quebec, twice, in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Quebec is on the minds of ever more people interested in Scotland – a culturally distinct region with a strong sense of nationhood, more left-leaning than the liberal and multi-cultural union of which it is a part, Quebec’s parallels with Scotland are many. Just as the British Empire was unthinkable without the contribution of the Scots, so modern Canada is unthinkable without Quebec and the Québecois – and not particularly because of bilingualism. History is not doomed to repeat itself in any set of circumstances, still less in a different context, but the parallels are worth studying.

Apart from Quebec, I see two particular points, which emerge repeatedly in inevitability arguments, which pro-independence Scots need to be wary of.

Firstly, they would not be well advised to try to surf a tartan wave to freedom. I think they will end up looking very silly if they try. The ‘No’ campaign is likely to involve a relentless attack on the economics of independence, which characterises the ‘Yes’ campaign as the triumph of empty-headed emotionalism over good old-fashioned Scottish common sense. In that context, holding a referendum on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn would be to confirm every stereotype of Scottish nationalists that will be brought out by the ‘No’ side during the referendum campaign. Would you place border posts at Gretna to avenge Bannockburn? Not blooming likely!

Secondly, it is important to remember that technology and organisation are unlikely to swing a huge number of votes in this particular election. A large part of UK political parties’ election organisation and technological effort revolves around ensuring that voters that they think are likely to vote for them actually get out and vote. All parties (except for some of the more organisationally weak NI ones) maintain databases of people who have told them they will definitely vote for them when canvassing, as well as of potential converts. In low turnout elections, such as council elections and by-elections of all types, it can make a significant difference, especially if coupled with a good final week campaign. The SNP’s ‘Activate’ software is undoubtedly impressive in conception and execution, but it is not different in nature to what every other party has had in operation for at least two decades.

That Get Out The Vote machine will be of less importance in an independence referendum, as turnout will be huge. Off the charts. Turnout was over 80% here in NI during the Good Friday Agreement Referendum, while the second Quebec independence referendum in 1995 topped 93%. Considering that the NI electoral register in the late 1990s was quite inaccurate – with various dead, moved, invented and ineligible non-nationals included and students and some others double registered – real turnout in NI in 1998 was probably also in the order of 90%. I would be surprised if it weren’t the same in Scotland. Many of the rest are simply unlikely ever to vote due to age and infirmity, severe mental disability, or complete disinterest in politics of any form. People will vote, in huge numbers, in this referendum. GOTV will not be decisive.

Where databases like ‘Activate’ can be useful, even in high turnout elections, is in identifying and targeting potential waverers, and then hitting them with literature, especially direct mail, specifically targeted to their concerns. This is difficult to get right but can really swing elections when one does. Again, it is not a new technique – the Tories used it to great effect in 1992. The problem for those predicting a vote for independence based on technology and organisation is precisely that – these strategies are not new, they are widely used and understood and, whatever organisation gap exists now, they will be used by both sides in the referendum campaign itself.

There are many very wealthy people with very definite views on both sides of the constitutional debate in Scotland. Both sides of the referendum campaign will have money to burn. Similarly, talented and experienced people will volunteer their time to help both sides of the campaign. Either side of the debate is the sort of cause that many people would gladly give a year or two of their life to. Both sides will be well funded, well staffed, and will have huge support from volunteers. Voters who make the mistake of identifying themselves as wavering, or who belong to socio-demographic groups that are perceived as having many undecided voters, can expect to be bombarded by letters, leaflets and even house calls in the final stretch. From both sides.

That is not necessarily a bad thing – while Scottish voters will drown in paper for a week or two, it does tend to mean that the campaign will be settled on the quality of the argument rather than the quality of the organisation.

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