Matt Qvortrup: History shows Yes campaign can win

Harold Wilson arrives to cast his vote in the EEC referendum in June 1975. Picture: Getty Images
Harold Wilson arrives to cast his vote in the EEC referendum in June 1975. Picture: Getty Images
Share this article
Have your say

Alex Salmond appears to be taking notes from Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum victory, writes Matt Qvortrup

Harold Wilson is – so I have been told by a reliable source close to the First Minister – one of Alex Salmond’s political heroes. Not that the late Labour prime minister was a supporter of Scottish independence. Indeed, Wilson did a fair bit to avert the rise of the Scottish National Party. No, the First Minister’s apparent admiration for Wilson is based on the latter’s formidable campaigning skills and supreme political intuition. An economist with a vision of the future, but also someone who was capable of plain speaking, James Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s had many of the traits that characterise Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond 40 years later.

These similarities are well known. What few have noticed is that Salmond might be trying to repeat Wilson’s success in winning referendums. There are many similarities and it is possible that Salmond might succeed.

A little history is useful. In 1975, Harold Wilson won a massive majority in the United Kingdom’s first national referendum. Just over 67 per cent voted yes to staying in the EEC (the forerunner of the European Union).

The prospects of Salmond repeating this may seem slim to those who read opinion polls. True, most of these, with some notable exceptions, suggest that Better Together would beat Yes Scotland by a 10-15 per cent margin if the referendum were to be held today.

But the referendum is not being held today, but a year from now. And this is why Wilson’s referendum in 1975 is so interesting.

A year before the EEC referendum of June 1975, all the opinion polls suggested that the No campaign would be home and dry. In fact, Wilson (and his sidekick Margaret Thatcher who campaigned vociferously for staying in the Common Market) won by a 2:1 majority. Britain’s membership of the EEC was resoundingly endorsed by what had seemed an inherently Eurosceptic electorate a few months before.

What did Wilson do? How did he accomplish this? Can Salmond and Yes Scotland repeat Wilson’s feat? There are two reasons why Wilson won: the economy and the vilification of his opponents.

Wilson made the most of the economic crisis. His argument was simple: things are tough, there is a recession. Anything is better than this – trust me to deliver a better result. Wilson was able to capitalise on the tendency that referendums generally are won in times of economic crisis.

The other thing Wilson did was to paint his opponents as extremists. The opponents – above all, the arch-conservative Sir Enoch Powell and the then often vilified Tony Benn – were described as beyond the pale fanatics whose views could not be trusted. Wilson stuck to one theme the whole way through: trust me to sort this out.

Needless to say, the vote in 2014 is not a repeat of the vote in 1975, but there are obvious ways in which Salmond can repeat Wilson’s strategy; and there are already indications that he is.

The SNP team of Salmond, John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon have – whatever one thinks of independence – been competent and sure-handed stewards during the years of the crisis. The parallels with Wilson are obvious.

The vilification strategy is more obvious and more effective. While Nigel Farage is difficult to compare to Sir Enoch, associating the Better Together campaign with the UKIP frontman is a cleaver strategy that may well have some of the same effect as Wilson’s vilification of Powell in the 1970s.

So will Salmond be able to emulate the feat of his hero and secure a Yes vote despite the opinion polls? Certainly, the First Minister has the charisma, campaigning skills and political instincts of the Labour politician. But Wilson had another advantage: money.

During the 1975 referendum campaign, the yes campaign outspent the opponents by a factor of ten to one. Figures from the Electoral Commission suggest that Salmond and the Yes camp do not have the same advantage.

According to a report last week, the SNP income in 2012 was £2.3 million, with estimated reserves of about £503,396. While the SNP’s finances dwarfed those of the Scottish Labour Party, which had an income of £530,387 last year, the SNP does not have the financial advantage enjoyed by Wilson in 1975. When the Liberal Democrats’ and the Scottish Conservatives’ contributions are added to the total tally, the two camps should be roughly equal.

But the question is whether these three latter parties would want to contribute to Better Together when they will all be fighting a general election to Westminster a few months later? Based on experiences from Ireland, it seems that the main parties are always reluctant to contribute money to a joint referendum campaign close to an election. The chance – or risk – is that Yes Scotland will have a slight financial advantage.

But having more money is not in itself a guarantee of winning. As several referendums in Ireland and on the continent show, well-funded campaigns with considerable financial muscle have often suffered defeats at the polls – for example, the Irish referendums on the Nice and Lisbon treaties and the French and Dutch referendums on the European constitution.

What matters is how the money is spent. To win, Yes Scotland must campaign on a single credible theme. They must be able to convince the voters that Scotland is better off outside the UK and that Better Together is conservative conspiracy. Not easy.

What Yes Scotland – and in particular the SNP must NOT do – is to water the message down by stressing that an independent Scotland will keep the monarchy, the pound and remain a member of Nato. This might be consistent with the messages from the focus groups, but it paints Yes Scotland as being on the defensive. Indeed, in 1980 when the nationalists in the Canadian province of Quebec lost their first referendum, they did this because they stressed that very little would change; that Quebec would keep the Canadian dollar and Elizabeth II as the head of state.

The polls may point towards a No vote in the referendum, though they have narrowed a bit in the past year, but this is of little consequence in a historical perspective. Wilson reversed a 2:1 majority against him to a comfortable victory in 1975. And, more recently, in the UK referendum on the introduction of the AV electoral system in 2011, the 70 per cent majority in favour of a new electoral system was reversed within a year. On the same day the SNP won a surprising majority at Holyrood, AV was rejected by 67 per cent of voters across the UK.

“A week is a long time in politics,” Wilson famously observed. It follows that a year is an astronomical time span and that it is still possible for Yes Scotland to win the referendum. But it will not happen automatically. It will require a concentrated effort, tight management of the campaign and ruthless execution of carefully crafted strategy.

• Dr Matt Qvortrup teaches at Cranfield University