RES: Scottish Referendum: Contest Volatility and Political Prediction

I have to declare a personal interest on the Scottish Referendum due on the 18th of September.  I studied in Glasgow instead of London, Oxford, Edinburgh or Princeton on a whim and an understanding that this was the place were Scottish Nationalism was strongest.  I stayed in Glasgow (nearly left after three months) because of the warmth of the people and the beauty of the place.  So, I am biased.  Both academically and personally.

I had the chance to visit Glasgow for work at the beginning of September and struck up many political conversations to  people I met randomly.  For those that have visited the west of Scotland they know that talking to people is easy.  By comparison, in the two years I have been in Vienna I have not talked politics outside work (or art or any other interesting topic for that matter), although last year there was an election that  changed the political landscape.  My interlocutors in Glasgow were a shop assistant, a couple of taxi drivers, the staff at my hotel, a fellow dinner at a restaurant, a group of retired people at a pub, some old friends and about two dozen academics at the conference I attended.

I was surprised at the strength of feeling.  Both for and against.  There were those that declared a yes vote will force them to sell their house and leave “within six months”.  While at the other end of the spectrum there was a conviction that even if defeated, they will bid their time for the next round, a referendum will eventually grand Scottish independence.  There are seeds of polarisation that were not apparent to a student of Scottish politics 20 years ago.  As part of my PhD research I interviewed close to 100 Scottish politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.  Among them Donald Dewar who is credited with setting up the new Parliament. Nationalism was a key parameter of my inquiry.  There were no indications of entrenched polarization.  Indeed, I have argued that  political and business elites in Scotland engaged in a neo-corporatist growth strategy.  A strong sense of identity was a key parameter but there was no evidence of this being construed in confrontational terms vis-a-vis the rest of the UK.  Of course I only studied elites.  But the similarity of political behavior amongst Britons was confirmed in extensive surveys by Bill Miller and others.

At an event in the Scottish Parliament last July (when I gave a talk on social media and political campaigns) keynotes by Michael Keating, James Mitchell and Charlie Jeffery all appeared to agree on how unlikely Scottish independence appeared at the time.  There was no chance of an upheaval to the status quo from the forthcoming referendum.  As Keating has convincingly argued, Scottish nationalism is a response to English nationalism and to a perception of indifference from southern Tories, and has little to do with a Scottish grassroots demand for independence.  A few weeks later this was confirmed by the most celebrated US polling guru Nate Silver who declared that Scottish independence had “no chance”, a pronouncement that was immediately picked-up by media in England.  You can of course agree with former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson that “a week is a long time in politics“.  And maybe forecasting of such a complex political contest is inherently not predictable.

My own take is slightly different.  Forecasts a year ago were assuming a ceteris paribus.  Nothing would change in the political discourse and individual politicians could make no real difference on the “settled will of the people”. The politics on the south side of the border were generally ignored in this calculation, with a strong assumption that this is an internal Scottish affair.  Yet this vote is about the relations of Scotland with the rest of the UK and the perception by Scots of UK politics.

I also think it shortsighted to ignore the possibility of political agency affecting such a high stakes game.  And voting intention does not indicate a settled opinion.  In this case, I think it remarkable that all accounts were ignoring the potential role of leaders and political entrepreneurs.  My impressionistic evaluation of key personalities is that Alex Salmond is the most convincing asset for the yes campaign.  Alistair Darling is a liability for the no campaign as he seems to present well argued “traditional” politics.  The “big guns” recent attack from Cameron, Osborne, Milliband and particularly Preston and Brown appear to harm the no campaign.  At the other camp the resurrection of Sillars must be one of the worst own-goals to the yes cause.  On balance it seems to the casual observer that the weakness of projecting an appealing positive message from the no campaign compared with the assertive campaign style of Salmond in the yes campaign have upset forecasts.  Also, it appears that the volatility of sentiment in the electorate, the implications of being undecided in this context (i.e. this is not party politics but a referendum) and the volatility in the political discourse were not accounted for in forecasts.  In a campaign debate where arguments are either too technical or have too many conditional statements voters switch-off.  As one of the taxi drivers I talked to put it “politicians never speak straight”.  In such a debate personalities matter.

I hazard a prediction of my own five days before the referendum.  On Friday this week nothing will be different in Scottish politics.  Whoever wins the referendum would not have won a decisive victory over the alternative institutional arrangements offered by their opponents.  Their mandate will be weak.  Leaders of both camps will have to seek reconciliation.  My understanding of the political tradition in Scotland supports such a post-election outlook.  Charismatic leaders and exceptional political entrepreneurs can win (or loose) referenda and elections.  The day to day political acts are cooperative and conciliatory however.  This is not how campaigns are won of course, but how well functioning democracies are run.

Having said all that, the repercussions of a yes vote will be serious for the financial markets and likely to affect the future of the EU.  But that is another blog altogether.  Lets wait for Friday morning before demonstrating the limitations in our ability to predict events of a different order of complexity 🙂

Postscript Monday 15th September: Vindicated already? Salmond calls his rivals to join Team Scotland.

Postscript Friday 19th September: The day after is always a bit of an anticlimax.  The question is whether devo-max will be delivered to the satisfaction of the Scots, to avert a re-run in 10 years.  There is talk of a “Home-rule” type devolution.  And of course appeasing hardliners in the UK Parliament that want Scots MPs to loose competence on “domestic” legislation.  The famed West Lothian question.  There is also a serious issue of reconciliation.  The referendum uncovered some fault lines in Scottish society that need bridging.

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