Many people are trying to explain why the Yes campaign did not win the referendum. I think, in time, we will wonder why we thought this might happen, why the campaign was so successful, and why people were so disheartened by a decent result.
Why did we think it might happen? Did we get caught up in the excitement?
Thinking back, for most of the campaign, it looked like the No side would win. I remember my stock answer was: ‘No is so far in the lead that we would need a big bang event to change things’. I think that was the feeling among most people for most of the time. It was certainly the feeling of the bookies.
Yet, for a brief moment, the prospect of a win was enough for the famous Vow and to produce a glimmer of excitement. So, what changed that longer term perception?
- The trend in the polls towards convergence – which made it look like Yes progress might continue.
- The margin of error – which made it look like the error could be in favour of Yes when the poll was close. A 52-48 should have been interpreted as 55-45 rather than 49-51.
- That famous 51-49 YouGov poll for Yes, which got the world excited briefly.
- It combined, for some, with a belief among the Yes campaign that it was picking up high levels of support ‘on the doorstep’.
Then, there was the general atmosphere:
- There was such a Yes presence, physically, that you would be forgiven for thinking that almost no-one supported the No side publicly. This was particularly true in the final weeks, when the streets, parks and town halls seemed stuffed with Yes supporters.
- There was such a skew in social media towards the Yes campaign: more numbers and often-stronger feelings.
Why think the campaign was so successful?
If we go back to the early to mid-2000s, we see an SNP struggling to make progress in the Scottish Parliament. That is the point of reference we should have when considering the success of the Yes campaign.
It has been an incredible 10 years: the return of Salmond as leader, with Sturgeon as deputy; the formation of a minority government in 2007; majority government in 2011 on 45% of the vote (based, in part, on the SNP’s image in government, rather than a desire for independence); and a referendum process that got so many people involved and persuaded 45% of the population to vote Yes.
Throughout this long period, we have heard that the campaign would be an unwelcome distraction – but it has energised people to discuss politics and actually turn out to vote in a way that no other campaign has. It also contributed to a vote that was closer than seemed possible a few years ago, when 60-40 in favour of No seemed about right.
Why so disheartened?
I think that way of thinking should give us some sense of the role of Alex Salmond. Personally, I worry that his resignation so soon after the result suggests that he is taking responsibility for the failure of the Yes campaign. Yet, the campaign was not a failure. Historically, support for independence was so low that a 45% result is an amazing achievement – and one that has stopped us taking No support for granted. The process put Scotland on the world stage, and Salmond (as a key figure in UK politics) is a big part of that.
In other words, we consider this a Yes loss because we came to think of it as an equal contest – like thinking that I could go out and compete with Paula Radcliffe in a marathon. If either side could have won, and Yes didn’t, the Yes side failed. In time, I don’t think we’ll stick to that story. Yes gaining 45% is a bit like me running a marathon in 4 hours* – something that looks a bit crap to casual observers, but something that should give some heart to the people involved.
*One day, I hope. One day.