Indyref poster FW print

As fatigue kicks in, tensions rise, nerves fray, and morale on the ground is repeatedly confounded by aggravating opinion polls, the Yes campaign needs to go beyond wishful thinking and find an authentically positive strategy. To get there, we need to look at two difficult questions head on:

1.       Given the persistent and significant gap in the polls, is there honestly a chance Yes might win?

2.       If the case for independence is so strong, why isn’t Yes already winning?  

The answer to the first question is an assured rather than resounding yes, but only if we face up to the difficulty posed by the second question.

The reflex answer of a Yes loyalist is that we’re not winning because of misplaced fear, unreasonable doubt, widespread misinformation and lack of political imagination. While that contains some truth, it is bad faith, placing the power to influence the outcome outside of ourselves.

A more productive answer is that Yes is not winning because around 10-20% of the population have viewed their case in one way, but might yet view it in another.

Political preferences are not really about issues or personalities or even logic. Those factors lie at the surface of the debate, but perception is what matters and that is mostly unconscious, grounded in moral foundationscognitive frames and root metaphors. The Yes campaign will surely be familiar with these perspectives, but they may need to take another look.

The signal and the noise

Almost exactly a year ago, perhaps the best electoral forecaster in the world said his reading of the polls was that the chances of a Yes victory in the Scottish referendum were ‘virtually non-existent’. Nate Silver’s understanding of UK electoral politics is not quite golden but he has a reputation for seeing through superficial volatility in opinion and being proven right in the end. A whole year later, after plenty of apparent volatility and with just a few weeks remaining, YouGov’s Peter Kellner makes a very similar claim in Prospect magazine:

“Scottish divisions over independence look more like those in the United States, where Republican and Democratic voters really do seem to inhabit different worlds in their values and outlook. This is bad news for Salmond, for the 60 per cent majority looks deep as well as broad. There seem to be few “shallow” opponents of independence who might be won over by effective last-minute campaigning.”

The ambiguity concerning ‘few’ and ‘shallow’ is something to hold on to. Moreover, even the best pollsters with large samples say that they are only right within a 2% margin 95% of the time; and there are reasons to believe this referendum could be among the disobedient 5% – it’s a once in a lifetime event after all.

Nonetheless, that still sounds like wishful thinking. The No majority is ‘deep and broad’ and the basis for their tenacious lead appears to be about stable factors like values and outlook rather than volatile ones like issues or events.

So here’s the point. Impeccable reassurance on the currency position probably won’t do it. A perceived victory in the second debate probably won’t do it. A huge push to get the Yes vote out on the day probably won’t do it either. Even if Yes fights heroically and wins all those battles, it may not be enough to win the war.

The brutal fact of the persistent 3:2 ratio against independence is that a strategy focussed on winning over the truly undecided vote is objectively a long shot, because if that’s all you do then you’ll need to win over almost all of them. Unless you are wildly optimistic, it’s hard to see why that would happen.

It follows that if you are serious about achieving a Yes victory you probably have to get some apparently settled no voters to change their mind, which means campaigning more explicitly at the level of values and outlook.

Reaching moral foundations:

That’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. The reason the argument can feel so binary, blinkered and baffling is because by nature we are not so much rational as rationalising; mostly we select facts and theories to serve the position we currently hold for reasons that are broadly ‘moral’. What it means to have ‘made up your mind’ is that you are at ease with how your decision feels to you, and that means it aligns relatively well with your moral foundations. To change your view, you would either have to start feeling uncomfortable at the level of those foundations, or more comfortable with the alternative option.

While the psychology of political messaging is too complex and contested to unpack fully here, the following sketch gives a fresh perspective on why Yes is losing in spite of what feels like a strong case for independence, and includes some thoughts on the kinds of shifts in framing and communication that might be necessary to reach No voters who are still susceptible in principle, but unpersuadable at the level of ‘issues’ alone.

Social psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt argues that our intuition operates on the basis of a palette of six main moral foundations below.[i]

1.     The Care/Harm Foundation is based on concern for others and a desire to protect them from harm.

I would say this one is evenly balanced at the moment, but Yes could tip it in its favour.

Yes reaches this foundation with its emphasis on social justice and a fairer society, but the risk of harm from independence is still viewed as significant by many No voters. Yes needs to push harder on the idea that saying no is not about safety, because it could entail exit from the EU and the end of the NHS which would be extremely harmful to Scotland. To ‘win’ this foundation, Yes therefore has to be seen to entail increasing safety for Scotland from the threat of a No vote, as well as better care for Scottish people through social policy. It looks like it’s already beginning to do that.

2.     The Fairness/Cheating Foundation relates to a particular sense of justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, sometimes called proportionality, as in Aristotle’s famous line that ‘justice is giving each their due’.

I think No is currently winning here, while Yes probably should be.

Yes should be winning here, because the core argument that a nation should have its own state is grounded in a sense of proportionality and fairness. However, for many, the position on the economy in general and the currency in particular is that Yes may not be ‘coming clean’. The Yes side has begun to shift the perception that it’s the deviant weaker party potentially willing to default on debt, and framed the prospective opponents instead as being the creators of needless doubt, uncertainty and instability, which is good. However, while this perspective has given the Yes side a clearer sense of vision and purpose, it’s not clear it has convinced those who were not already inclined to be convinced. I think Yes should acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties of the monetary union, but do so in a measured way that makes the other side appear shrill and unreasonable.

3.     The Liberty/Oppression Foundation is about resisting domination, and the sensitivity to people being tyrannized. Jonathan Haidt says this “triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.”

Yes is winning here.

This is a natural win to Yes because independence is about resisting domination by a remote power we mostly didn’t elect. However, for many, the Yes side are thought of as ‘Nats’ who are domineering and fanatical and therefore cannot be trusted to wield power fairly, and some remote voters believe Central Belt domination would be just as bad as the status quo. In some ways the currency issue is an opportunity to gain more ground here, because the veto on a currency union can be presented as taking away our currency and effectively bullying us into a second-rate option, which is already happening.

4.     The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation is about the love of tribes and team mates, about our drive to form cohesive coalitions, whether through families or nations.

No is winning here, but doesn’t have to be.

I think many Scots feel that voting Yes is a kind of betrayal of an extended family with shared history and institutions. Yes have done quite well to speak of the ongoing positive relationship that would emerge, but notice how ‘No’ speak of ‘divorce’ and ‘separation’ and ‘breaking up’. The positive case for the currency union and the Queen as Head of State should be linked to this foundation by emphasising the maturity of the ongoing relationship of equals. Yes might always ‘lose’ in this foundation, but I believe the problem is compounded by a perception that some on the Yes side view voting no as a betrayal, which, in my view, it clearly isn’t. Working hard on this foundation might be a key part of reaching larger sections of the female vote where, anecdotally, this kind of vilification appears to be a real turn off.

5.     The Authority/Subversion Foundation is tradition and legitimate authority, grounded in respect and an appreciation for the structures provided by hierarchies.

 No is currently winning here, but Yes can narrow the gap.

A no ‘win’ on subversion is built in to the subversive nature of independence. However, Yes have a chance to use the currency union issue to their advantage if they can take a really strong line on this and go on the attack. We need to find the ‘strict father’ voice that the No campaign currently has on that issue, and we can do that by painting a picture of Scotland’s strong position in the currency negotiation more vividly in voters’ minds. Over the last view days that has begun to emerge. I also think Yes should think about ‘legitimate authority’ a bit more. Rather than saying the value of independence is that it allows us to ‘be in control’ of our country, which is very abstract, it would be better to say ‘we can’t make plans’ and link that to energy and planning policy – this taps into the foundation better, by making constraints on our actions feel more visceral.

6.     The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation is about avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions but it extends to a broader conception of purity or disgust, and our ideas about what is sacred.

I believe no is currently winning here but Yes can narrow the gap.

This is a difficult one to call, but I think for some who are not predisposed to yes, there is something desacralizing if not disgusting about ‘breaking up’ when it is not strictly necessary – for some people the idea is actually offensive at some level. I also wonder if Alistair Darling’s unwillingness to say that Scotland could be a successful independent country relates to disgust. Moreover, some potential Yes voters are genuinely disgusted by the perception that particularly zealous Yes campaigners make the other side feel uncomfortable. Again, this foundation might be particularly important for female voters.

In addition to general campaigning discipline, to counteract these issues perhaps Yes could make more of the kind of nationalism that connects to the sacred. The positive case doesn’t have to be ‘blood and soil’, but reminding people of their love of the country has a place.

That brief sketch of complex and contested terrain begs a lot of questions, but the point is that Yes needs to get beyond campaigning for the undecided voters and reach some No voters too, by connecting better with the moral foundations that are not currently being reached. 

So if you’re out there campaigning and you are asked about typical no concerns relating to currency or pensions or just general uncertainty, realise that you’re really being asked about protection, oppression, fairness, betrayal, subversion and disgust.

At the risk of making politics sound like football, the tenacity of the No lead can be explained by the ‘score’ on moral foundations currently being about 4.5-1.5 to No. However, the good news is that with some intelligent reframing and improved messaging the score could be more like 4-2 to Yes, in which case some relatively stable no voters would begin to change their allegiance and Scotland would become independent. There is still everything to play for.

[i] In the selected model, the theory is that certain adaptive pressures in evolution gave rise to a tendency to make quick automatic associations that are largely emotional in nature, leading us to make evaluative judgments extremely quickly. On this account of ‘social intuitionism’, reason only emerges after the fact, to rationalise the moral position we have already intuited. More details here: