What do undecided voters need to see, hear and feel to vote yes on September 18th?
Scotland’s constitutional future now depends upon a few hundred thousand voters. They are a varied bunch, and some are more persuadable than others, but they share certain characteristics. Many feel daunted by the responsibility to make the right decision, sensing the abundant opportunity but also fearing uncertainty and change. People in this pivotal group have glimpses of hope and fear, and they continue searching both for a reason to vote no, and the confidence to vote yes.
The threefold categorisation of no, undecided, and yes doesn’t do these ‘persuadables’ justice, because it conflates leanings with convictions, and makes the movement from No to Yes feel like a long jump, when it is often just a good conversation away. For this reason the 10 point scale outlined at the start of the Yes campaign by Stephen Noon – with 1 as vehemently against independence, 10 as staunchly in favour, and a large group of ‘switherers’ in the middle – helps to focus the mind.
Beyond the trappings of tribal morale, the 8,9,10s who are out campaigning for Yes should not waste precious time arguing with the 1,2,3s who won’t be budged from No. With about 700 hours remaining the most important players in this game now are the 4,5,6,7s who are still persuadable.
There is no magic solution that will win them over. As I argued here, the key policy issues matter less than the images, feelings and associations created by the ambient mood of the debate, because evaluations at the level of moral foundations determine how people vote.
So when people say: “I’m just not sure we can go it alone” or “I quite like being part of the UK” or “I feel British and Scottish and don’t feel I should have to choose” or “I don’t like the way Nationalists say you can’t be patriotic and vote no” What are they really talking about?
Independence is a family affair.
You don’t need to be particularly psychologically minded or even fond of families to accept that the family is the best metaphor for the nation. Indeed this is a central idea in the field of political psychology, best known through the work of cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff.
It’s no accident that family is such a big theme in campaign videos, but it can be done well or badly. #PatronisingBTlady became infamous despite being explicitly about concern for family because the video felt pathetically narcissistic. In contrast, the Yes campaign’s “Our choice between two futures” was described as ‘flawless’ by Political psychologist Drew Westen. Like the more recent beautiful video ‘Yes means’ the implicit message is not merely that we’re a country where families thrive, but that by growing into our newfound power and freedom, we can enjoy a deeper sense of Scottish togetherness.
But wait, because there is a darker side to this development – didn’t we leave something behind? Most of us have at least indirect experience of family breakdown, with the dislocation and anguish that can follow for the partners, their friends and the children.
If you’re working for a Yes victory, you probably don’t think of yourself as ‘a separatist’ at all, and you may not think of the proposed change in terms of ‘divorce’, but in that case I’m guessing you’re likely to be an 8,9 or 10 rather than the 4,5,6,7s you now urgently need to reach.
Some of these persuadables don’t even like the fact they have to take this decision at all, and even to pose the question is divisive. So what do you say when you sense that beneath the chatter about the merits of policies and possible futures, what they are really wrestling with is filial in nature? How do you address the fact that the process and outcome of ‘breaking up the UK’ feels to some to be too much like dividing a nation, breaking up a family, damaging social cohesion, and wrecking the nest?
The Kelvingrove debate featured lots of great moments, not least the ravishing question: “If we’re better together, why aren’t we better together already?”
The highlight for me though was Alex Salmond’s response to a question on the divisive nature of the campaign and what follows for cooperation afterwards. He took to the stage (c1.20.45) and spoke of his obligation as First Minister to bring Scotland together no matter what happened. He said he wanted his negotiating team to include the best of Scottish talent, including Alastair Darling, and he ended with conviction: “Once the referendum is over, it’s a matter of Team Scotland. That’s what we need.”
The next day when I was relaying the key aspects of the debate to my wife (who hadn’t seen it) I found myself welling up with emotion when describing this scene. Alex Salmond is more avuncular than patriarchal; his default disposition is less commander-in-chief and more uncle-in-chief, but that was a ‘father of the nation’ moment.
I’m sure the emotion had nothing do with Eck as such, but more about that spirit of cohesiveness and togetherness at a time of rancour and division. It felt magnanimous, literally big-souled, and we need that now. We will win this referendum one conversation at a time, and the spirit must remain positive, but when you sense this deep distaste for division within Scotland and separation between Scotland and the UK, don’t be afraid to address it directly.
Here are a few suggestions about how to go about that:
1. Be confident not zealous. Zeal reinforces the discomfort of enforced division and puts some people off. People feeling uncertain are more likely to respond to people who can empathise with the uncertainty from the perspective of a broader confidence, rather than those who feel the uncertainty is completely misplaced. As Gerry Hassan has argued, acknowledging doubt is about strength, not weakness. Many who feel some lingering attachment to the UK are ready to vote yes, but are less likely to do so if they are alienated from their feelings by the suggestion that sadness is misplaced.
2. An “Aye, but” strategy can be persuasive. Minor doubts strengthen major convictions. When Margo McDonald said (c20mins) that some women were put off by the sense of confrontation, valued contemplation and wanted to hear a bit more of “Aye, but”, her message chimed with some research in climate change communication.
For instance, “Weather patterns have always fluctuated, but what we have seen in recent years is not normal” works much better than simply “what we have seen in recent years is not normal” Similarly, “There is financial uncertainty after any major political change, but an Independent Scotland would be one of the richest countries in the world” works better than simply: “Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world.”
3. It’s more about growing up than splitting up. Yes campaigners should acknowledge that independence can look like a divorce, but also explain that it is more like a mature young adult making a timely move in to their own place, next door, or across the street. The relationship goes on, still close, but healthier than before. While the political union ends, most of the social, economic and cultural ties will remain.
4. A nation is not being broken, but rather, restored. The Act of Union in 1707 happened in particular circumstances that are no longer relevant. As Historian Tom Devine put it, we did a lot of good things together since then, but the relationship has run its course and the reasons for the Union have passed. In this respect, paradoxically Scottish independence is about putting the country back together.
So with this root metaphor of nation as family in mind, what do undecided voters need to see, hear and feel to vote yes on September 18th?
I believe they need to see positive images of Scottish togetherness, signalling trust in a large and strong Scottish nuclear ‘family’ on good terms with its immediate extended ‘family’ in the rest of the UK.
They need to hear positive stories about the vitality of an independent Scotland, while also being affirmed in whatever doubts, fears or sadness remain over the loss of British kinship.
And they need to feel hopeful and excited about the idea of living in a united post-British Scotland, and above all confident in themselves, so that when they get to the polling station after months of swithering, they finally decide to mark Yes on the ballot paper.