Whatever the Supreme Court outcome, the task is the same

by | 21 Nov 2022

Whatever the Supreme Court verdict, the task remains exactly the same - the independence movement needs to shift public opinion. Everything else is just noise.

I am going to miss the Supreme Court announcement – I was pre-booked to be in Bilbao for a conference on polling and attitudes to independence movements across Europe. There is an irony in this clash.

It’s the fact that while I’m at an event with campaigners across the continent sharing information about what we all know on how to measure and shift opinion on independence, in Scotland the independence movement is lining up for one of its Two Minute Furies. Yet what Scottish independence needs is opinion to shift, not another howl at the moon.

Because whatever the result on Wednesday, the task remains the same. And that task is absolutely not ‘performative anger at the British state’ but ‘effective engagement with people who don’t say they’re supporting independence but could be won over’. Then again, I’ve been arguing relentless that that is our task since September 19th 2014 and we’ve still not done it.

Let me start with why the Supreme Court outcome doesn’t really change anything much. If the Supreme Court says no we can’t hold a referendum, we’re back to where we were – we need to find a way to break the deadlock and make something happen. If it say yes we can hold a referendum it gets complicated.

Because from there we get into a mess. By far the most likely outcome is a lot of messing around before the unionist side makes clear it is definitely going to boycott the referendum and we all realise that means we can’t meaningfully ‘win’ it. So the Scottish Government won’t hold it (but may well try to spin the process out for as long as possible).

And if the Supreme Court says it is too early to judge then we will presumably spend the next year passing legislation before we come back and end up on one of the other two paths. That’s just a waste of a year, but that’s what’ll happen.

I don’t believe there is any outcome from Wednesday that will result in a contested referendum and I caution everyone to be very careful about hoping for an uncontested referendum. I think it is stasis any way round and so we’re… exactly where we are now.

So is this a ‘democratic outrage’? Nope, it isn’t. A ‘democratic outrage’ is 60 per cent of the public not getting what they vote for. If 50 per cent of the public want it and 50 per cent don’t, that’s a ‘democratic deadlock’. To break a democratic deadlock (stating the obvious) more of the public must shift to supporting your position than the other one.

What Scottish independence needs is opinion to shift, not another howl at the moon

That is not a position we have been in for any consistent period of time, and even then only within the margins of error. Please spare me talk about ‘mandates’ – yes, the Scottish Government has a mandate to ask for a referendum. But the UK Government has a mandate to say no. It’s still 50/50 any way you spin it.

And if there is a democratic deadlock then it is for the side proposing change to break that deadlock. It is not illegitimate to be stuck with the status quo if there isn’t a majority for change – that’s how democracy works

I’ve heard so many excuses about why we’ve not actually got round to shifting opinion yet. “You can’t shift opinion until there is a referendum”. Rubbish – public attitudes change all the time without needing a referendum. Or ‘we’ve tried but the media is against us’. Except have we? Is a march, a street stall and some public meetings effective engagement with wavering voters?

They certainly don’t think so. One of the things I’ll be talking about in Bilbao is extensive public attitude research work I was involved in which discovered that not a single wavering voter we engaged with through detailed qualitative research methodology (dozens of people interviewed by professionals) even knew there was an ongoing independence campaign.

(The closest we got was when the facilitator pushed a little harder and one participant said ‘I got caught in traffic and about two blocks ahead I saw saltires passing by – was that something?’. Confirmation bias destroys campaigns…)

And if you doubt what I’m telling you, go and look at the polls and pitch me a credible case for the argument that we have been effectively engaging with wavering voters. It’s almost a relief we’ve not been doing it because if we had and this was the result then we really would have something to worry about.

But the really dominant argument against me stressing the need to engage with voters was people telling me to back off because ‘the First Minister is on it and the SNP knows what it’s doing’. Well, you’ve been telling me that for nearly a decade now so it’s my turn to ask you the question – when exactly is this going to work?

There is very good and detailed evidence on who is most likely to shift from No (or undecided) to Yes and it isn’t who the SNP leadership tells you it is. They claim its the ‘cautious, affluent middle classes’ and that’s why the SNP keeps cosying up with big business and refuses to challenge vested interest.

But it isn’t. While this is more complicated than I can explain properly here, it isn’t a new category of people unlike other Yes voters we have to win over, there is about 15 per cent of the population who profile exactly like their Yes-voting peers but didn’t quite make it over to voting Yes. Winning them over is about the risk-reward balance.

We have to persuade them that the reward is high enough to want to take a risk and that the risk of seeking that reward is low enough to make it worth taking. Telling them ‘nothing will change’ doesn’t actually reduce the risk, it only reduces the reward. That is the sum total of the SNP leadership’ strategy and its not working.

The first decision you have to make for yourself is a simple one – is what we are currently doing working?

There is a much more effectively way to shift opinion. Again, there isn’t space here to explain it all but very roughly you need to develop effective stories about how a person’s life gets better and you need to share those stories into people’s lives as they are lived. They won’t come to you, you can’t just knock their door, you need a proper engagement strategy.

Some of us tried to do this. A group of us with expertise in the field devised a methodology based on current best practice in social campaigning globally. We tried to do it openly and democratically and involve everyone. So we told the First Minister about our launch date. The way she then acted to destroy the initiative remains the single most unscrupulous thing I’ve experience in my life in politics.

The result is… where we are now, the deadlock, the uselessness of the ‘official campaign’, the constant broken promises, the perpetual search for someone else (other than those running the show) for you all to be angry about.

I’d encourage you not to be angry on Wednesday (though I would reserve some for those who have been stringing you along with the whole ‘we’re about to hold a referendum’ myth for the last six years). If it goes against us, howling at the Supreme Court for accurately interpreting the law isn’t helpful. Nor is moaning that we don’t get everything that we want despite having no more support than the other side.

It ought to be a moment of internal reckoning and personal determination. The only way out of this deadlock is to do something we’re not currently doing to shift opinion. To win a referendum we need it, but more importantly to get a referendum we need it. If we were sitting here at 60/40 support for independence we’d be well out of deadlock territory and well into outrage. Everything would then become possible.

At some point you’re going to have to make up your mind. The first decision you have to make for yourself is a simple one – is what we are currently doing working? The second decision is also straightforward – can the people who have been running the show since 2014 change and do something different? The third is harsh – even if they were willing to change, are they up to the task?

For me, that’s the only thing that changes. The task remains what it has always been – winning over voters. What changes is whether the promise of a shortcut where we can get a referendum without doing the work first still persuades you.

If not, what should be different on Thursday morning is your determination to see things change, and change radically.

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