Ok, before the inevitable predictions poll, results debate and recriminations, what lessons can be taken from the totality of the Scottish independence referendum?
Here’s a couple of suggestions.
1. The neverendum? A long campaign, or certainly what feels like a long campaign, has pros and cons. The emergence of what seemed to be widespread public engagement by polling day in voter registrations, but will be clearly measured by the actual turn out. Are we to indulge in a bit of Scottish exceptionalism here and say that the turnout, 97% registrations etc all pertain to a matrix of factors that mean this is unique to this issue in Scotland? Or does it suggest that the idea of the disengaged public is more to do with a weariness with the dominant political culture and political communities and less with politics itself.
2. Moratorium. In the Republic of Ireland, a media moratorium applies to the coverage of elections on the day before voting. Similarly, the use of opinion polling in advance of voting day is also controlled. The last few days before today’s referendum vote included a battery of opinion polls and a significant amount of media coverage. Both potentially have a disruptive effect on the undecided etc, and, given they are usually controlled by pretty wealthy people or corporations, they tend to represent those interests. This can work for or against the status quo, since, clearly last minute interventions might be targeted at breaking system justification (the tendency of people to vote for the status quo rather than weigh up its benefits and drawbacks, even when the status quo is not in their interest). The main issue here is that the chances of countering last minute propaganda circulated by the narrow interests that control broadcast and print media, are very limited. A defined moratorium can provide voters with a break from been proselytised and a period of reflection before voting.
3. Social sentiment versus traditional polling. This is largely dependent on the overall result here, but there seems to be significant difference between social sentiment (i.e. the relative support for a Yes vote) and traditional polling (which has regularly been reporting NO ahead). Notably the last few opinion polls were all faithfully reported as giving No a lead of 2-4 percentage points. Few people pointed out that the proportion each polling organisation identified as ‘undecided’ varied wildly from about 6% to 14%. While demographics and other factors play a part, it is an interesting subtext to the result here. The political scientists on here will be spitting their frappuccinos all over their Muppet Show t-shirts at the thought of it. But if there is a Yes vote, the idea has to be considered that maybe traditional polling is, effectively, system justification masquerading as crap.
4. Purdah. If you are going to have purdah rules, you should stick to them. Essentially, purdah is intended to circumvent the tendency of the current political culture to descend into unabashed auction politics, writing dramatic political and economic cheques that, post-election, will clearly bounce. By that stage, though, the vote has been cast, democracy has taken it’s course and any post-mortem can only seek to punish manifesto breaches in the court of public opinion. In theory, purdah applied to the referendum, however, Westminster’s late offer of powers to Scotland, in the event of a No vote, seemed to exactly mirror the type of last minute interventions the purdah rules are intended to stop. Whether that offer of powers, and the response to it, swayed the vote either way will be measured by the result, and, presumably, the focus of some dreary research papers.
5. The BBC. Less the state broadcaster and more the status quo broadcaster. Nick Robinson definitively managed to hollow out any claims to impartiality. Expect an internal review after the referendum.
6. The “Union”. No-one appears to really know what it is or what it is for. There seemed be a bizarre incoherence in the celebrities pushed by the No campaign in the last week: like David Beckham, Eddie Izzard and (!?) Bob Geldhof. If there is a marginal No vote it may look like crazed genius, if there isn’t, it will be added to the series of questions raised by the cultural, economic and political territory No chose to fight on. At the end of the campaign, the “Union” certainly doesn’t look strong, even before a final result.
7. Yes or No. If you are asking people to vote No, psychologically you are probably more pre-disposed to negative campaigning since, by definition, you are using negatives a lot. Maybe its too obvious an association to make, but in this case, the No campaign became synonymous with negativity. There may be a simplistic lesson there. Or may it was just inherent in the No campaigners.