Matt Qvortrup: History tells sceptics Yes can win

First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE assumption that the undecided vote against change is empirically incorrect, says Matt Qvortrup

‘COULD he win it?” asked the BBC reporter – who shall remain nameless. His voice sounded anxious, nervous even. The sort of voice that asks the doctor if everything will be OK, when you know deep down that the answer will be negative. The “he” was First Minister Alex Salmond. And “it” was the referendum on 18 September this year.

My answer was wavering, as perhaps befits an academic nerd. Besides, I didn’t want to give the punchline away that I had planned for this edition of Scotland on ­Sunday.

So could Yes Scotland pull it off? Conventional psephological wisdom holds that referendums are won by those who are against change. The old adage “in doubt vote No”, is often said to be the best predictor of who wins in referendum campaigns. But there is a problem with the conventional wisdom. It is incorrect.

If we focus solely on the referendums that have been held in Britain since the 1970s, when this mechanism was first used to solve a political problem, we find that seven out of ten referendums have been won. There have only been three No votes: in Wales on devolution in 1979; in the referendum on the Regional Assembly for the North-East of England in 2004; and in 2011, when a majority rejected the AV-electoral system.

So, statistically speaking at least, there is a chance – or a risk – that Yes Scotland will win.

But, of course, such statistical arguments are not always persuasive. For a start, most of the referendums held in Britain have been on relatively popular issues, which already enjoyed considerable support before the referendum campaign. For example, the proposal for a Scottish Parliament was – to use the late John Smith’s words – “the settled will of the Scottish people” well before the referendum campaign in 1997. And a majority of the voters in Northern Ireland were similarly in favour of Power Sharing well before the campaign in 1998 began.

The question of whether Yes Scotland is likely to win in September depends on whether there are examples of initially unpopular proposals which have gone on to be supported by a majority on polling day.

Many people – especially those leaning to a No vote – suggest that it is almost impossible. Opponents of independence seek solace in the – for them – comforting thought that the Yes side usually loses support during a referendum campaign.

This belief is not entirely unfounded. In a study of 15 referendums held in Western democracies in the 1990s, the Canadian political scientist Larry Leduc found that the Yes side lost support in ten cases. In five cases the opposite was true. But, as Leduc pointed out, the separatists in the Canadian province of Quebec overcame a large deficit to come within a whisker of victory in the vote held in 1995.

If we include the votes on whether countries in Eastern and Central Europe should join the EU in the early Noughties, we find that the Yes gained support in all the cases. In Poland, to take one example, the percentage supporting a Yes vote increased from 39 per cent at the beginning of the campaign to a massive 77 per cent on polling day.

The assumption that the electorate are inherently conservative and that the undecided voters invariably vote against change is factually wrong and empirically incorrect. Moreover, it gives Better Together a false sense of security that they can ill afford.

Of course, history does not always repeat itself. But certain patterns and tendencies tend to be observed across the cases.

In the referendums in which the Yes side has gained support during the campaign there has often been a sluggish economy. This, for example was true in Sweden and Finland in 1994. In these two countries the voters voted to join the EU because the current economic situation was bad – though not catastrophic. The same applies to Scotland today.

The other factor we see across many of the referendums in which Yes has gained support during the campaign is that a charismatic leader has led from the front. In 1975, Prime Minister Harold Wilson overcame a double-digit deficit to win a clear victory on polling day, and the same feat was accomplished by Spanish PM Felipe González in the poll on Nato membership in 1986.

The same pattern almost repeated itself when the hugely popular leader of the Parti Québécois, Lucien Bouchard, was a few thousand votes short of securing independence for the Francophone Canadian province in 1995. And, to complete the picture, the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, gained 39 points in his referendum campaign on Polish entry into the EU in 2003 when his approval ratings (positive minus negative ratings) were at an all-time high of +30. According to a recent poll, Salmond has an approval rating of +26. Poor David Cameron could only manage a meagre –3. Based on this measure there is reason to be pessimistic if you support the Union.

Could they win it? For a long time I didn’t believe it was possible. But my answer now is, yes, they probably could. «

Matt Qvortrup is author of Referendums And Ethnic Conflict, published by University of Pennsylvania Press