Thursday 2 October 2014

Scotland's Vote 28: The Unthinkable

In his speech after the referendum result, Alex Salmond accused the UK parties of trickery in their offer of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament:

I think that vow was really important and the people who are really angry in Scotland today are not the Yes campaigners, our opinion of the Westminster elite is really pretty low. The people who are really angry are those people who were persuaded to vote No by that vow, by that solemn pledge and are now already beginning to feel let down, angry, disappointed because it looks like they have been tricked.

According to Salmond, the Yes voters were rightly sceptical of anything said by the UK political parties. Meanwhile the poor, trusting, childlike No voters accepted the word of Cameron and Miliband, and they will pay the price when (and if) the UK government reneges on its promises to Scotland.

Salmond appears to believe that on the one hand, the Scots are a proud and capable people ready for the challenges of building an independent nation; but on the other, a majority are craven, servile and gullible. Not for the first time, he displayed notable contempt for No voters.

Alex Salmond making his resignation speech.

If we take Salmond at face value, the referendum was decided by naive faith in the word of Westminster politicians. Are a majority of Scots really so trusting?

Reading the tea leaves

The opinion polls say otherwise. Unfortunately we don't have a proper exit poll, and all polls must be taken with a grain of salt, but YouGov provides some interesting data. They asked:

How much do you trust claims made by [name of politician] in relation to the independence referendum?

in a series of polls, most recently on 17 September. The possible responses were "not at all", "not a lot", "a fair amount", or "a lot." If we look at leading politicians, how many people indicated a positive degree of trust by giving one of the last two answers?

Trust (or lack of it) in politicians; click to enlarge.

These are cynical times. Voters everywhere have good reason to be disillusioned, and no leader is fully trusted by the public. All of them are trusted by far less than half of respondents, but the SNP leaders have a clear advantage. 

Only about one third of voters trust Brown, and one quarter trust Cameron or Miliband. Brown was the most trusted No campaigner, but also the least powerful. Even the most ignorant voters are probably aware Brown is no longer Prime Minister. Delivery of any new powers depends on Cameron and Miliband, who are considerably less trusted.

(As an aside, it's remarkable how little regard the Scots have for Miliband. 41 out of Scotland's 59 MPs are Labour; yet Miliband is no more trusted than an old Etonian, English, Conservative Prime Minister.)

There's a serious disparity between the trust in No campaigners, and the 55% of Scots who voted No. At least 21% of the electorate don't trust Gordon Brown, but decided to vote No anyway. David Cameron is trusted "not at all" by 51% of the electorate, and yet only 45% voted Yes. Alex Salmond's attempt to blame the result on gullible and trusting voters is looking weak.

The limits of popularity

The trust issue is the flip side of something I first noted back in July: The SNP government in Holyrood has had approval ratings of up to +23, but support for Yes in the referendum was -10. Almost exactly one third of voters were prepared to express a positive opinion of the SNP, but still voted No. If the Yes campaign had persuaded even half of this group, it would have won a decisive victory; but it failed.

Independence supporters are fond of blaming the perfidy of the media and Westminster politicians for the referendum outcome; but this ignores some simple facts. The SNP is not a helpless voice in the wilderness; it has been the governing party of Scotland for the last seven years. Despite (or perhaps because of) hostility from the UK parties and much of the media, it was re-elected with an increased majority in 2011, and on current polling it is on course to win a third term in 2016. The SNP enjoys much greater trust and approval than its UK counterparts.

It was Salmond's job to make the positive case for independence. As a successful and broadly respected First Minister, he had stature and authority on his side. On polling day, a decisive majority of the electorate voted No.

Thinking the unthinkable

Why did the SNP, with all its success and popularity, fail to secure a Yes vote? The correct explanation may well be the simplest: A significant number of voters gave the Yes campaign a fair hearing, but were not convinced of the merits of independence.

For many erstwhile Yes campaigners, this is almost literally unthinkable. For them, independence was so obviously right that no decent human being could vote No.

This is a colossal failure of imagination and empathy. As I have said before, it is simply not true that two million Scottish voters are fools, cowards or worse. Of course committed Yes supporters did not find the arguments for No convincing; but this is a matter of personal judgement. Other people could reasonably look at the same facts and come to a different conclusion. Believing those who voted for the opposing side are not only mistaken, but deserving of contempt and hatred, is the way of a fanatic. It has no place in democratic politics.

Unless erstwhile Yes supporters can understand this, they will find it very difficult to come to terms with the vote and play a constructive role in Scotland's future.

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