Scotland Decides ’14: reflections on an incredible campaign

At last, time to reflect. Lynne Cameron/PA Wire

Scotland has rejected the opportunity to become an independent nation by leaving the United Kingdom. Defeat was conceded by the Yes side as votes were still being counted.

So, an astonishing campaign is over. We asked members of our panel to reflect on an extraordinary political event.


Chris Whatley, Professor of Scottish History, University of Dundee

The whole campaign used the language and tone of a general election. That wasn’t helpful for a debate of such significance. It was a straight Yes/No choice on the ballot paper, but there were many shades of grey in between. Questions remain unanswered on both sides, but I sensed less preparedness to discuss detail on the Yes side. This was particularly noticeable in the past few weeks.

There was some nervousness about people speaking out against the Yes campaign. Business people who did so were condemned as being part of a conspiracy hatched by David Cameron and the treasury.

But the Yes campaign was masterly in attracting popular support. Yes Scotland chairman Blair Jenkins and presumably Kevin Pringle, the head of communications, did a wonderful job of ensuring that a few simple messages were constantly repeated, spiced at key points with dubious but highly effective claims such as protecting Scotland from alleged reductions in NHS spending and privatisation. Impressive too was the way they were able to portray as scare stories what seem to have been legitimate challenges to campaign assertions. You have got to hand it to them.

Two people on the other side impressed. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, showed herself to be a gifted, sharp-witted and canny politician and a very able speaker. And more recently it was intriguing to watch a revived Gordon Brown coming back from semi-retirement as the vociferous, savvy politician and commanding speaker that we saw more of before he became chancellor of the exchequer.

On the other hand, the Better Together campaign was by common consent overly negative. Little attempt was made to match the Yes campaign’s vision. Many of us called for a more upbeat vision of the UK union for the 21st century. Brown probably came closest, but Better Together’s campaigning was quite backward-looking, dwelling on Labour’s achievements with the nationalised industries, creating the NHS – illustrated in TV broadcasts by the use of black and white film.

Through all their warnings of the dangers of independence, there was a failure to appreciate the Scots’ proud and contrary nature.

Better Together was unable to counter effectively Yes claims of Westminster’s approval of illegal wars, the bedroom tax, and the alleged one-sidedness of austerity policies. Better Together won despite its campaign.

But we have seen a remarkable level of public engagement. There has been a return to the public meeting in Scotland, and a passion for argument and debate that most people thought had disappeared from the political map forever. I hope this can be maintained. It’s great to see the heart of democratic Scotland is still beating strongly.

Jo Armstrong, Professor of Public Policy, University of Glasgow

At long last we have reached the end of the referendum campaign. We all agree we now have to work together for the benefit of Scotland. To do that will require agreement on the economic and financial facts and challenges facing Scotland in 2016.

Sadly, however, I am left with real worry that no one seems to be trusted to offer the electorate these essential facts. Everybody who has had a view on Scotland’s economy and its public finances seems to have been pigeon-holed as being either for the Yes or No side. To be a grown-up country we need to be able say: “We don’t necessarily like what you are saying but we know you are telling us what we need to hear.”

The politicians haven’t been willing for that to happen. You have to be honest with the public at some point, otherwise, you feed their cynicism when the “facts” emerge after the event.

I have tried not to listen to the politicians at all. I have limited my viewing to the live TV debates as what I did see comprised unedifying shouting matches. It may be fun TV for some, but offers little for those trying to understand the the realistic political choices being offered.

The Yes side had a much stronger campaign, energising many about the importance of politics in ways that probably we never thought possible. Keeping this grassroots interest may not be easy but it must be in the interest of democracy to at least try.

For the No side, it always had a harder task presenting a cohesive vision when it required three different parties to agree their collective offerings. But it should have been prepared for it to be far closer than the polls initially signalled. The Scots voted Yes for devolution in 1979, the SNP won a majority of seats in 2011, and a majority seemed to want devo max on the ballot.

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

It may have lost the vote, but Yes won the campaign hands down. It was positive and gave people the courage to think about the future in a different way.

The Yes side reached out to ethnic minorities. It spoke about “people of Scotland” not “Scottish people”, which is an important distinction. Yes also learned pretty quickly that it needed to re-evaluate how it was approaching women. The No camp didn’t catch on, which was why it aired a disastrous commercial. That was humiliating for them.

The leaders of the big UK parties didn’t seem to get what was happening until the past few weeks. A lot of people advised David Cameron not to come and campaign, but he’s the prime minister. He made a very bad decision not to get more involved earlier. Nick Clegg has been almost absent. As for poor Ed Miliband, he just reminded us of the growing divide among Labour supporters in Scotland.

I liked Jon Snow for Channel 4 News. He’s been more aware of the high level of debate from an earlier stage than most of the London media. The BBC was disappointing. Its coverage felt one-sided and selective. A big demonstration of Yes supporters in Buchanan Street in Glasgow was hardly mentioned. It felt like the real information was been passed around on social media – the role of which was under-estimated.

In general, it’s wonderful that people have been encouraged to express an opinion. Facebook and Twitter have been lighting up with so many people who never engage in politics, saying what they think – it has been inspiring to see them empowered. It really was the most uplifting campaign in my lifetime. A lot of places around the world would love to have what we have had here. If history teaches us anything, it’s that we are very lucky.

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