Lesley Riddoch: Referendum of chronic indecision

Slogans won’t help people make up their minds when what they want is hard information, writes Lesley Riddoch
There's been door-to-door activity and street canvassing by Yes campaigners but the results are moot. Picture: Neil HannaThere's been door-to-door activity and street canvassing by Yes campaigners but the results are moot. Picture: Neil Hanna
There's been door-to-door activity and street canvassing by Yes campaigners but the results are moot. Picture: Neil Hanna

The longer the independence campaign goes on, the more Scots seem undecided. The latest TNS/BMRB poll shows 25 per cent Yes voters, 44 per cent No and 31 per cent don’t knows – twice the undecided rate of previous polls. Some of that is down to the survey itself.

According to Professor John Curtice, TNS used to ask how respondents would vote “tomorrow”. The timing in their new question is the less focusing date of autumn 2014. Many pollsters ask how people “think they will vote” while TNS ask how they “intend to vote” – a higher threshold of certainty. And their new poll weighting favours non-voters in 2011 – perhaps also more likely to be undecided in 2014.

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Nonetheless, it’s clear the hullabaloo around “one year to go” hasn’t transformed the independence debate. And in many ways that’s hardly surprising. Did anyone really expect a rational electorate to back massive constitutional change just because 30,000 people went on a rally – however upbeat, optimistic or cheery? Or because they might personally trouser £500 or safeguard the future of the Scottish football team? If puppies are not just for Christmas, independence is far too important to be decided by a party atmosphere, a quick bung or even the chance to extend two fingers to Sepp Blatter. However tempting.

Proselytising doesn’t help. If the debate descends completely into “Vote Yes or the Scottish Parliament will be dissolved” versus “Vote No or broadband connections will cease overnight”, no thinking person will venture far from the undecided camp. Talking in slogans and turning up the volume are natural responses for frustrated campaigners. But they are as counter-productive as the illusory quest for an easy, single, silver indyref policy bullet. It doesn’t exist.

Nor is the constant assertion of conspiracy particularly helpful. There’s no denying the reality of Project Fear, the McCrone Oil Report cover-up in the 1970s or the indy-averse nature of the mainstream media. But here’s the deal: most people choose to live in that mainstream. The more Yes campaigners suggest life is a big, bad, conspiracy against their cause – even if it is – the more uneasy voters feel.

Mind you, there’s also been a massive amount of door-to-door activity, street canvassing and local meetings by Yes campaigners. Shouldn’t that have made a mark? Perhaps it has. Perhaps detaining voters in a “holding pen” of indecision is an achievement. But what will seal the deal – more of the same?

It’s always impressive to see physical effort by those in pursuit of political change, but these days canvassing can feel like an unwelcome invasion of personal space unless canvassers are particularly well-versed in the subtle art of persuasion. Are they? Real, authentic doorstep exchange is a good thing. But how often are genuine, searching conversations taking place and not just an exchange of slogans and platitudes? I merely ask.

The Scots are neither effusive Italians nor razzmatazz-loving Americans. Back-slapping, tub-thumping rallies scunner the average Scot as surely as swithering Labour voters were scunnered by Neil Kinnock’s presumptuous pre-election victory party back in 1992. Nor are Scots like North European voters – steeped in long traditions of healthy democratic participation.

Last week’s Govan council by-election saw a shameful 20.8 per cent turnout (European average 70 per cent) The canvassing tactics and lines of patter that managed to switch off 80 per cent of the electorate cannot create radical change in voting intentions by 18 September.

Put bluntly, the thinking Scot does not want to hear “Just say yes” or “Independence is the normal condition for a country” (tell that to the happily and highly devolved Lander of Germany or the federal states of Canada) or “Independence gives us the chance to decide Scotland’s future” (it does, but devolution’s already given us a stack of choices we haven’t had the courage to use) or “Decisions made in Scotland are better than those made in Westminster” (the trams debacle and Holyrood Parliament scandal spring all too quickly to mind).

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It’s not that these bald assertions are untrue. They just aren’t enough. Repeating formulaic arguments won’t cut it in this debate. “Heart” supporters of independence are already signed up. The gullible are least likely to vote. The majority of Scots want grown-up, credible reasons to up-end the constitutional arrangements of several lifetimes.

The strength of the case for independence is increasingly the alien nature of politics south of the Border. Immigrants, disabled claimants and the poor are now thoroughly demonised, the welfare state is being dismantled and the spectre of Ukip haunts every debate. Scots watching the recent Tory Party conference may have felt they were eavesdropping on another country – every outlook and attitude grated. Yet this party runs Britain and may do for decades. Even if Labour wins, its track record of reversing socially divisive Tory policy has been weak and its vision for a new society is currently even weaker.

The whole scenario reminds me of standing on the vertigo-inducing Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe before an exposed lump I had to “scramble” across to proceed. My pal’s coaxing and the waiting queue helped. But the clincher was surveying the alternative – a three-hour equally “airy” walk back.

There is no “easy” constitutional option for Scots. The Tories are transforming Britain from a market economy to a market society – as Gerry Hassan recently observed. Five million non-consenting Scots cannot stop them. Appealing as it is for shell-shocked voters to contemplate indecision, we must steer a course. And that involves canny scrutiny of two equally risky options – independence and remaining in the UK.

So what will break the stalemate – the White Paper? That’s doubtful. Some 60 per cent of undecided voters in the TNS poll say they need more information – but I’d bet they don’t want more one-sided “propaganda” or even a single “take it or leave” Scottish Government template for Life After Yes. Scots need an authentic choice – and that means the Unionist parties must flesh out their plans for Scotland well before the vote.

The latest call for a pre-referendum Constitutional Convention would let voters compare all propositions before taking the plunge. It’s naïve perhaps to think political parties might sink bitter differences for the sake of democracy. But as things stand, this referendum may be remembered more for the chronic indecision of the Scottish people than any actual result.

We must do better than that.