Comment: Salmond will lose his dream by playing safe

Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IN his open letter to Alex Salmond, published in this newspaper yesterday, SNP grandee George Kerevan warned the First Minister that the “Yes campaign lacks passion”. Mr Kerevan also wrote that “literally dozens of Yes or Yes-leaning voters have confided to me that they are dispirited by the direction of the nationalist campaign”.

Will this be decisive? Will dispiritedness translate into a defeat for the Yes campaign? The answer is yes. It is hard to see how the First Minister – formidable politician though he is – will be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Based on my experience from 20 years of analysing referendums and working on campaigns in more than a dozen countries, one thing stands out: without committed foot-soldiers it is impossible to win a referendum. And without a clear and compelling vision it is impossible to mobilise campaigners.

To take an example from these isles, the yes campaign in Northern Ireland had a convincing vision for peace when they campaigned for a vote for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This inspired the voters.

Similarly, charismatic politicians like Spain’s then socialist Prime Minister Felipe González campaigned determinedly for Spanish membership of NATO. (A policy that his party had previously been against). González won the referendum with a clear majority by spelling out a vision for his country as a modern European democracy.

And a couple of decades earlier, French President Charles de Gaulle won referendums on a new constitution and other issues by presenting “une certaine idée de la France”.

Conversely, politicians who 
were defeatist, sought to please everybody and who failed to spell out a gripping vision, have lost referendums by wide margins. This is what happened when the otherwise popular Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland failed to win support for EU membership in 1994.

In this country, failure to spell out a compelling vision was the main reason for the disastrous defeat suffered by Nick Clegg in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011.

As things stand, there is a risk – or a chance – that the independence referendum will be lost by a very decisive margin. Without a compelling, credible and forward-looking vision for Scotland, the Yes-campaign will lose. No wonder the “yes-leaning voters” have confided in Mr Kerevan that they are “dispirited”.

Things are not looking good for the Yes camp. Governments rarely win referendums during their second term. The longer you govern, the less likely you are to be trusted. But this is not the main reason for being dispirited if you support Scottish independence.

As a rule of thumb, a yes campaign will lose one third of the support it initially had. If referendums elsewhere are anything to go by, the Yes-campaign should be happy to get more than 30 percent. Such a devastating defeat is virtually certain if Mr Salmond does not spell out a positive vision.

The First Minister maintains that referendums can be won. He points to the opinion polls before the Holyrood elections in 2011. These wrongly predicted an SNP defeat. Could the same happen in next year’s referendum? Are there examples of campaigns that have succeeded despite falling behind in the polls?

One comes to mind. In Northern Ireland, in 1998, support for the Good Friday Agreement briefly fell below 50 per cent in April. But after a concerted effort by Tony Blair – backed by Bill Clinton and Bono among others – support picked up, and in the end, 71 per cent voted for the Agreement.

But this was the exception to the rule. In any case, it is difficult to compare a referendum on a peace deal with a referendum on something as abstract as independence.

Given the low support for independence, Mr Salmond will have to repeat the feat of those who campaigned for the peace-deal. This will be very difficult. It is hard to see how even the First Minister and his formidable team can pull this one off.

To win the First Minister and the Yes campaign must be bold. It must present a believable vision that appeals to the heartstrings of all Scots. Vague and defensive statements about issues like the pound, NATO membership and the monarchy give the appearance that the Yes-campaign is running scared. This does not inspire support.

One example from abroad will suffice. In 1980, René Lévesque, the popular leader of the Parti Québécois, followed exactly this strategy when Quebec held its first referendum on independence. In order not to scare moderates, he shied away from presenting a clear vision. As a result, his supporters became dispirited and he lost the referendum by a margin of 20 per cent.

Conversely, when Quebec held the second referendum in 1995, the new leader of the separatist party, M Lucien Bouchard, was within a whisker of winning. He had appealed to national sentiment and had a compelling vision of Quebec as a beacon of French culture. If the Yes side is to have any chance of winning the referendum, they must follow the example of de Gaulle, Felipe González and Bouchard. But it is hard to see how. A crushing defeat in the referendum looks very probable.

Such a result would have long-term consequences for the SNP and Mr Salmond. You are rarely given a second chance in independence referendums. If the Yes campaign does not get it right, the prospect of an independent Scotland will be lost for decades, perhaps even centuries.

• Dr Matt Qvortrup teaches politics at Cranfield University. His book ‘Direct Democracy’ is out next month from Manchester University Press.