'Yes' or 'No", which was the better campaign?

Taking my ballot paper into the voting booth on September 18, I almost felt cheated. There it was. Just one short question and a box for ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The simplicity of the vote was down to Prime Minister David Cameron and his veto of the ‘Devo Max’ option. Presumably his thinking was that – faced with a choice between the relative comfort of the status quo, or the unknowns of independence – voters would not want to risk a leap in the dark.
Scotland UK jigsaw
Looking back, his logic looked sound. Even though the SNP had gained overall power at Holyrood, this popular support did not mean voters were committed to following the SNP to its ultimate destination of independence. (This point was actually underlined after the referendum, when Lord Ashcroft Polls reported in the Guardian that 14% of SNP voters actually put their cross in the ‘no’ box.)

Better Together started out with three fundamental problems. Urging a ‘no’ vote meant the campaign was intrinsically negative. Promoting a ‘no change’ proposition was hardly likely to excite the electorate. Thirdly, the most obvious people to front the campaign – leading figures from the current Westminster government – would have proven unpopular with many north of the border.

I kept hoping that Better Together would break through the negativity of their message and present us with a positive vision of Scotland’s role in the future of the United Kingdom. But it never came.

Instead, we were bombarded with a series of diktats from London ranging from the serious (“you can’t use the pound”) to the ridiculous (“you will have to pay roaming charges for your mobile phone” and “you won’t be able to watch ‘Eastenders”).

This focus on negative messages and threats not only broke all the accepted campaign rules and seemed to confirm Better Together’s self-styled nickname ‘Project Fear’. Even a slight softening of the tone in June this year, when “No” became “No thanks”, didn’t make much difference.

If the momentum for greater autonomy was fuelled by frustration with London telling Scotland what it could or could not do, then Better Together seemed to be playing right into the hands of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Indeed the tone didn’t really change until the leaders of the Westminster parties made their panic dash north, following the infamous poll that put ‘Yes’ in the lead. In Aberdeen, on September 14, David Cameron made one of his most impassioned speeches, begging people not to tear the UK apart. Then all three party leaders signed their now famous vow for more powers, which was published the following day on the front page of the Daily Record.

Meanwhile, the ‘Yes’ campaign had its own difficulties. Sure, its message was fundamentally more positive and it was able to focus on its visions for an independent Scotland playing its part in Europe and the World while enjoying the benefits of its wealth.

However, there were questions that dogged the ‘Yes’ campaign throughout. Better Together rightly recognised the currency question was one that would resonate with the public. After all, currency is fundamental to so many things in life.

Scotland’s future currency became a real impasse in the debates. Alistair Darling knew it was a campaign winner and anyone who watched will long remember his finger wagging and repeated question to Alex Salmond – “What is your plan B?”.

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This article appeared in the IoD Scotland Magazine

None of the other objections to independence seemed so durable. The suggestion of border posts seemed laughable to those of us who have travelled across Europe, stopping only to fill up or pay the occasional toll. Threats that we would be thrown out of the EU or NATO, or that our banks would move, failed to resonate with many.

But the currency threats clearly continued to unsettle voters, confirming the noes and worrying the waverers.

It was then that the ‘Yes’ campaign seemed to follow the age-old adage and, because it couldn’t beat them, it joined them. Suddenly ‘Yes’ was borrowing Better Together’s clothes with its own ‘Project Fear’ about how sticking with the union would kill the NHS.

Not surprisingly, given its more positive message, I would say the ‘Yes’ campaign was the technical winner. It felt like a vibrant grassroots movement driven by hope and optimism. It also made good use of celebrity endorsements, produced more attractive print, good press ads and persuasive, emotive commercials.

By contrast, ‘Better Together’ came across a little too much like the finger-waving political establishment. There wasn’t the emotional appeal of a strong vision and even some elements of their presentation seemed ill considered. Did anyone consult a focus group before approving that infamous commercial portraying the hapless housewife who didn’t know what way to vote?

But despite the dithering housewife and the negative, threatening tone of the ‘No’ campaign, Better Together still won through. They may have broken quite a few good campaigning rules along the way, but they still got the result they were fighting for.

How much of that was down to David Cameron’s initial faith that people would shy away from a leap in the dark, we shall never know.
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