Robin McAlpine: Another 'magic button' fails - can we accept it's time for strategy?

Common Weal director and CommonSpace columnist Robin McAlpine warns that blind faith in the notion Brexit will turn No's to Yes's on Scottish independence is a road to failure

SO, the opinion polls don't seem to show a significant rise in support for independence post-Brexit. Why? What's going on?

I must admit that this hasn't surprised me at all – I had a number of debates with people before and after the poll in which I said I was very sceptical there would be a substantial shift in indy voting intentions as a result of Brexit.

The reason so many people expected it to happen (other than wanting it to be true) was I think to do with treating the population as a kind of average – the average Scottish voter is pro-EU so the average Scottish voter will be more likely to like alternatives to Brexit so the average No voter will now be more pro-independence.

It is very unwise to deal with the population in terms of averages and aggregation – these tell you little or nothing about how an individual will behave.

But it is very unwise to deal with the population in terms of averages and aggregation – these tell you little or nothing about how an individual will behave. When you walk through the issues in more detail, I think the picture looks quite different.

For a start, I'm sceptical that the framing of Scotland as wildly EU-rophile is correct. One in three Scots voted to leave the EU. I have met dozens of people who have told me that they voted remain but primarily for tactical reasons (to get another indyref). Quite a few said they'd have voted to leave if Scotland was independent.

Another bunch weren't voting tactically, but were heavily influenced in voting Remain not because they loved the EU but because they saw it as some degree of protection from a Westminster they trusted less. Another bunch voted to remain through gritted teeth (me among them), happy with neither outcome.

There is a dearth of decent attitude data in Scotland, so on far too much we're left guessing. But my guess is that by the time you include the tactical voters and the very reluctant, you're getting much closer to something like 50/50. When you include those who didn't vote in the EUref (but did vote in the indyref), I think you'll find that a minority of the indyref-voting population voted positively for the EU.

Of those that did, how many were really, genuinely enthusiastic? Voting is a binary practice which doesn't tell you about motivation. I'm guessing that 'do you like custard?' would get a slightly more positive vote than the EUref (most people like custard). But what does that mean behaviourally? How many people really make custard these days? How many people go out of their way to order custard? Liking something and doing anything about it are quite different.

For a start, I'm sceptical that the framing of Scotland as wildly EU-rophile is correct. One in three Scots voted to leave the EU.

So are there enough people who feel strongly enough about EU membership that they will act on their disappointment? Obviously there are quite a lot of Remain voters who were already Yes voters so they can't shift to Yes (and there are a lot of Leave voters who were also Yes and who are feeling ignored, but that's another story). And of course there are Leave voters among No voters so they won't shift either.

Who, therefore, might be in the intersection in a Venn diagram made up of three circles – No voters, Remain voters and those who feel their Remain vote substantially stronger than their No vote.

My instincts from the beginning have been 'not that many'. I have argued that a lot of people who feel most strongly about the EU do so because they see it as an alternative to nationalism, something higher and better than nationalism which they see as grubby and sort of beneath them. It seems unlikely they will embrace an independence movement as a result.

So which No voters love the EU enough that they will become Yes voters? I can't create a profile for many of them. If you can't think up concrete examples of people who might switch, you shouldn't just assume that somehow they are there 'in the aggregate'.

But what about the risk argument? I've heard people who believe that the generally increased sense of risk that will result from a Brexit vote will make people less risk averse when it comes to making a constitutional choice – against a risky Britain, an indy vote looks more attractive.

I have met dozens of people who have told me that they voted remain for tactical reasons (to get another indyref). Quite a few said they'd have voted to leave if Scotland was independent.

I'd argue that this is to misunderstand risk. Risk is perhaps the single area in which humans are least rational – cognitive bias (i.e. 'faulty thinking') dominates. In reality, during periods of higher general risk people actually become more risk averse, not less. (The primordial brain says 'I'm in trouble – do anything not to make it worse'.) 

And the only category for whom this isn't true is the 'nothing left to lose' category – the poorest and most vulnerable in society who are generally least likely to be pro-EU and most likely already to be Yessers.

In any case, it is very important to differentiate generalised risk and specific risk. So 'oh dear, everything feels a bit ropey just now' is general and creates a pretty low level of motivation while 'shite, I might lose my job' is specific and creates a pretty high level of motivation.

When faced with a broad, generalised sense of vague risk which doesn't seem that likely to impact on us directly or immediately, we might worry, but we don't generally do anything. 

So how many people do you think in Scotland feel in serious risk of losing their job because of Brexit? Now subtract Yes voters, Leave voters, strong No voters and those who aren't totally convinced that independence will save their job. That is the group which might act out of risk. I think it is small.

Finally, there are people whom I've heard argue that Brexit is a fatal blow to the unionist case and so it negates weaknesses in the case for independence. This is wrong in every way – weakness is weakness and the fact that your opponent got a little weaker does not mean you got any stronger. The vast majority of attacks on Scottish independence that worked before Brexit still work afterwards.

I sat down long before the EUref vote to work through this stuff in my head; I just couldn't find anything like as many people whom I thought would behave the way everyone else seemed to think they would behave. I've hardly disguised my feeling that the EU referendum was a pretty shaky base from which to build a new independence campaign.

I can't help feel that the 'new front' is at best exaggerated and that the scepticism seems to have been empirically correct. Really wanting something to be true is a dangerous pastime.

So what exactly is going on? I'm not yet ready to voice my opinions on this because I don't know if people are yet in a place where they want to hear them. But I am content to state the following – we're so desperate to believe there is a shortcut we're grasping at any straw that comes our way (and a small minority seem so desperately in love with the EU that they think it really is the single big defining issue of our era, which in Scotland it just isn't).

Some people have had a dig at me for not getting on board with this exciting brave new front in the battle for independence. Others are disappointed that I've been sceptical. I can't help feel that the 'new front' is at best exaggerated and that the scepticism seems to have been empirically correct. Really wanting something to be true is a dangerous pastime.

I will apologise for being a broken record about this but Scottish independence will, like a rainbow, constantly remain just out of reach for so long as we keep believing we'll get there through luck and shortcuts.

I'm not pessimistic – I haven't changed my view that a strong majority for independence can be created over the next few years. But I am becoming impatient with anecdotes like 'JK Rowling sent out a tweet' or 'Nicholas McPherson wrote a column' passing themselves off as strategy.

Brexit isn't a magic button. I know this because there is no such thing as a magic button – and because the only thing clearer than the dogmatism that the polls would definitely swing dramatically to indy is the crashing failure of them to do any such thing.

So, are we doomed to keep chasing up any blind alley that we see in front of us, to grasp at anything shiny that briefly dangles in front of our faces? Are we going to end up like some millennialist cult waiting for a sign from God that its time for indyref two?

Or are we finally going to knuckle down and develop a coherent strategy?

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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Thu, 08/04/2016 - 16:24

Great article Robin. Do you think the SNP is developing the kind of strategy you have in mind? I have a feeling this magic button stuff is more prevalent among the grassroots.


Thu, 08/04/2016 - 19:31

usually I like the material you put out - even I disagree I have to think about why and revise my own ideas.

But I'm sorry only someone with a very narrow exposure to the range of people who live in Scotland could have written this.

Some EU nationals voted yes in 2014, more voted no (because they were told Scotland would leave the EU), a lot opted out (as they didn't really care and felt they should leave the decision to the people living here). Well that is one large group that now has a positive reason to vote yes if independence becomes the means to secure EU membership.

Many EU nationals in Scotland have partners/families here. Guess that some of those would have voted yes, some no. Again some of those who voted no now have a positive reason to vote yes, precisely due to the EU issue.

Another group may not have cared about yes/no in 2014 and voted no as they felt the security of the status quo was of more use than the, believed, uncertainty of independence. Well that argument is a lot less valid today.

Fear that Robin is making the mistake of thinking that the only people living in Scotland are those who identify as Scottish - whether by birth or accent or whatever?


Fri, 08/05/2016 - 13:02

I fully accept your reasoning, Robin, but I have to admit, it has left me quite deflated - I was certainly one of the faithful waiting for the inevitable post-Brexit swing to Yes. I appreciate you have covered a range of strategies previously, but could you maybe write a wee follow up to this article summarising what we should be doing / driving towards?


Fri, 08/05/2016 - 13:30

I agree with what you are saying, Robin. The remain/leave vote seems to me to have been spread far and wide across a range of people with very different feelings on independence for Scotland. (Personally I'd like to see an independent Scotland out of the EU - yet I voted to remain for tactical reasons, just to get a shot at another independence referendum.)

My main worry now is that several noises have been sounding from SNP circles and other political commentators that the next independence referendum should have the ballot question on independence linked to remaining in the EU. This I think is a huge mistake and should be resisted at all costs. No one can know how a 'linked' question would pan out with the voters - so things would quickly become very muddied with voters in favour of remain/leave the EU doing unexpected things when voting on an independence referendum.

Keep it simple: Should Scotland be an independent country yes/no. Doing anything else will overly complicate what the possible responses could be - even to the cost of achieving independence.

Conflating the two issues is insane!


Fri, 08/05/2016 - 15:12

My experience since the EU ref has been quite different from Robin's. The one work colleague I didn't manage to convert before the IndyRef says he's now fully on board (which didn't surprise me, as he told me not long after the IndyRef that he'd probably shift if we ended up getting dragged out of the EU). My boss, a company director from Newcastle, now just needs a wee shove, despite still being in favour of the UK. We had a big chat about it, and it's not a knee-jerk thing (the fact Nicola has impressed him so much has also helped...) Friends on Facebook who I always suspected were No voters in 2014 have admitted they see no other choice now. And it would be ridiculous to ignore the blatant shifting of opinion amongst some in the Labour party (Alex Rowley will be an interesting one to watch over the next few months.)

I think this is maybe all down to regional differences. After all, the friends and colleagues I refer to are all based in Aberdeen or Edinburgh, cities that voted No. I always suspected the 2014 campaign was too Glasgow-centric - what worked for Labour voters in the West of Scotland did not necessarily work for voters in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Stirling. In fact, I know of activists from those areas who voiced such concerns in their campaign groups, only to be told by the leading lights (who, inevitably, were from Glasgow/West of Scotland) that the focus on Labour voters was the right one. Well pretending Glasgow and Scotland are one and the same didn't work last time, and I worry some folk are still unable to see the difference.

If IndyRef1 was about trying to convince Glasgow voters, then IndyRef2 needs to be about convincing folk from all over Scotland - including those middle class voters that folk in "The Left" don't like appealing to. Perhaps trying to make it a "stability of Scotland in the EU vs chaos of UK outside the EU" thing won't convince No voters in Glasgow (will anything, though?), but it might just do the trick in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, areas with high numbers of folk who clearly felt independence just wasn't worth the risk. Combine it with smoothing out the undeniable rough edges from the last campaign (currency, defence, pensions) and that 5% swing from No to Yes shouldn't be that far off.


Fri, 08/05/2016 - 19:17

I can not speak as to the general population but only to my own personal experience. My 32 year old son was a definite NO voter. although slightly left of centre in his political views, I suspect he bought in to a lot of the Better together rhetoric and fear tactics.
however, his long term girlfriend is German. both voted NO last time around but have stated they are definitely yes for the next one. in some small part, this is due to him realising a lot of promises were not kept and things stated as fact were indeed fiction. I noticed this when he commented on David Cameron's facebook page as David attacked Jeremy Corbyn. My son said "these are the same nonsense fear tactics that you used during the indyref!
but even then he still felt it was all too risky to become independent.
first thing in the morning of the EU referendum, he texted me to tell me he and his girlfriend had just become absolute YES voters. saying if its a choice between Europe or UK then Europe it is. I know of two others were a similar story is true and one family (EU nationals) who voted no last time because they were afraid they would have to leave (be deported they said) but they now realise they were wrong.
but then, maybe there are also others who did vote yes but will not next time as they dislike the EU.

I do agree that many of us voted to remain in the EU in the hope the rUK would vote to leave and it would trigger a new referendum for independence. And I agree we are a bit too desperate to cling to any hint of a 'magic button', a you call it. you cant blame us really.
I would say that, I know in my heart I am guilty of wanting the magic button too and thus jumped on the "hopeful bandwagon" after the BREXIT vote.

But yes, we really need to get working on a proper strategy that can convince some undecided no voters that a yes vote would be worth taking a risk for.

thought provoking article as always thanks

Alisdair McKay

Fri, 08/05/2016 - 23:17

Taking up from the end of Altered-Zuzu (who?) What has happened over the last two years is a lot of chatter within the yes bubble, without the essential meaningful engagement with pro Union population. They are after all only the people who's minds need to change to get the necessary majority for a totally self governing Scotland. Buttons start or stop a machine, they can never build the machine, that comes down to examining the task to be accomplished and then designing and building the machine to accomplish it. The task is persuading 'NO' voters. The means to accomplishing that is surely, simply presenting the facts which we believe when scrutinized makes the question of 'whether' a self governing Scotland, a natural conclusion rather than a choice. Not all the 'facts' favor the self governing choice but if we believe that most overwhelmingly do, why are we not making more effort to refine and disseminate an honest portrayal to as wide an audience as possible. Ramming an argument down peoples throats if anything makes it less likely or easy for them to come round to a different point of view. Also during campaigns is one of the least productive times to get level headed, 'unloaded' information across. I think that many people were impressed in 2014 by the integrity of much of the pro Indy argument and presentation, this needs to be revisited in 'peace time' with a grass roots 'WHY' movement. We can be sure that a deluge of miss-information is being prepared by the powers that be, to be dumped on voters to try to stifle the prospect of any rational considerations in due course. Without ever producing a document those arguing for the status-quot only have, as we have seen, to generate reasonable (or unreasonable) doubt, whilst those arguing for change have to prove a strong case to justify the change (unless it's Brexit!). Anybody making a disingenuous statement can only do so to an uneducated or uninformed audience, we need to educate that audience. Common Weal have done much to produce papers and information, can we get a Common Spread network of local groups who can take the discussion of these and other available material forward to where it can be exited from the bubble into the rest of the population who must be our targets?

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