Matt Qvortrup: Emotions will rule on independence

The case either for or against independence will be won not by economic reason but by matching people’s passions, writes Matt Qvortrup
Milo Dukanovic led Montenegros secession from Yugoslavia by plucking the national heartstrings of his people. Picture: AFP/Getty ImagesMilo Dukanovic led Montenegros secession from Yugoslavia by plucking the national heartstrings of his people. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Milo Dukanovic led Montenegros secession from Yugoslavia by plucking the national heartstrings of his people. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

The First Minister was his own, confident self when he presented the economic case for Scottish independence yesterday at a factory in Falkirk. But for all the endless statistical predictions and the occasional snipes at consecutive London governments for squandering the revenue from the North Sea oil, this tactic will not win the referendum. To be sure, the former oil economist has a claim to fame and knows what he is talking about – but that is not enough.

His arguments are credible. Scotland certainly has a flourishing tourist industry and most of the whisky connoisseurs do prefer Scottish single malt to many other beverages. Even the argument that Scotland has generated more tax revenue than any other part of the UK can be supported by statistical evidence. But that is not how referendums are won. Referendums are won by emotions, not by economics.

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It may well be the case that Scotland, to quote Alex Salmond, “has got what it takes to be a successful independent nation”. After all, small countries such as Denmark and Finland – both with populations roughly equivalent to Scotland – have been “successful”. But, the problem with Salmond’s line of attack is that economic arguments rarely convince the voters in referendums.

US president Bill Clinton’s campaign staff famously said “it’s the economy, stupid”. That may well be the case for general elections. Candidate elections are almost always about bread-and-butter-issues. But referendums about independence are birds of another feather and require a different tactic.

The issue of independence is an emotive issue, not a rational one. In an age of globalisation, the case for independence must be based on deeper and possibly irrational passions. We have plenty of evidence for this from other countries.

Of course, experiences from other nations are never repeated exactly, but recurrent patterns often occur. A couple of examples may be useful to explain why the economic argument may prove fatal to the Yes side of the debate. In Quebec in Canada, the francophone independence party got nowhere when it used economic arguments in the first referendum held there in 1980. It lost by 20 per cent.

But in the second referendum – in 1995 – the charismatic leader of the Québécois independence movement, Lucien Bouchard, came within a whisker of securing independence when he campaigned on a theme that stressed the cultural differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Similarly, when Montenegro seceded from Yugoslavia, after a referendum in 2006, prime minister Milo Dukanovic did not resort to claims about the economic or even the social benefits of leaving Serbia. Rather, Dukanovic made references to such matters as the historic destiny of his country, ancient battles and other issues that plucked the national, romantic heart-strings of his compatriots. He won the campaign.

Why don’t economic arguments convince voters? Basically, because they are easy to refute. There are as many opinions as there are economists. But it is hard to refute emotions.

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” observed David Hume – perhaps the greatest Scotsman in history. To win the referendum in 2014, the Yes side needs to appeal to the “passions”.

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Rational arguments are of secondary importance when dealing with an essentially emotive issue such as independence.

So, far from questioning the tactics of the perhaps most skilled – and cunning – politician on these isles, I would advise Salmond and supporters of independence to follow a different approach if they are to convince a majority of the Scottish voters to vote for independence in the autumn of 2014. The SNP – and the other parties campaigning for independence – will lose if they base arguments on hypothetical economic benefits.

“In doubt, vote no”, runs an old adage, which is often used by those who study referendums. You know what you have got, but you don’t know what you will get. The same is often true in independence referendums. The problem with the economic arguments for independence is that, by their very nature, they are technical. And voters do not trust technical and technocratic arguments.

There are several examples of politicians who have lost by using economic arguments. In 2000, when Denmark voted on joining the euro, the then prime minister – and former economist – Poul Nyrup Rasmussen made the technical arguments for membership available to the public.

Faced with hundreds of pages of econometric equations and undecipherable mathematical formulae, a large number of voters grew even more sceptical than they had been before. Needless to say, Rasmussen lost his referendum.

By focusing on the economic argument, Salmond has unwittingly handed the initiative to the opponents who can ask him to elaborate on ever finer technical points. Such a strategy will only help those who oppose independence.

Referendums are notoriously difficult to win. As a rule of thumb, you can only win a referendum if you are ahead in the polls when the campaign starts. Those in favour of independence face an uphill struggle. But referendums have been won before from similar positions.

Before the referendum in Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair is reported to have received a note from an adviser who quoted the 16th century Italian political writer Nicoló Machiavelli.

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The note read: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones, and so it is that whenever those who are enemies of a new order have a chance to attack, they do so ferociously, while others defend it halfheartedly.”

• Dr Matt Qvortrup’s book, Nationalism, Referendums and Democracy: Voting on Ethnic Issues and Independence, is published by Routledge