Scott Hannon published this in his Postage Stamp Philosophy Blog on 19th May. Many thanks to him for allowing us to reproduce it here
The UK’s EU Referendum: Lessons from the Scottish Independence Debate
With an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership inevitable following the dramatic election victory of the Conservatives, last year’s vote on Scottish independence offers valuable insights into how a successful campaign can be run. This is not so much in terms of how the Better Together argument came out on top but more in the way the Yes side managed to take the contest to the wire. Then there is the small matter of how the Scottish Nationalists have emerged from defeat stronger than ever.
Winning is Not Enough
One immediate lesson to learn is that there is no room for complacency in the event that the British people decide to remain part of the EU. Winning the vote will not kill the issue stone dead and, in the event of a close call, may even galvanise those on the other side. In Scotland, the narrow margin of victory has only encouraged those who believe in independence, the feeling being that they are only one final push away from their ultimate goal.
Therefore, for the UK to play any significant role in the EU, a resounding victory is needed, though it would be naive to think that this in itself will be enough, illustrated by the aftermath of the 1975 European referendum. Back then, 67% of voters favoured continuing British membership of what was then referred to as the Common Market. Only 8 years later, Labour were committed to withdrawing the UK as part of its ill-fated 1983 election campaign.
To counter this type of scenario, then, those committed to the EU must continue to make themselves heard after the vote, victory being only the beginning of a longer process.
A Positive Vision is Needed
Another aspect of the debate is likely to centre around the economic costs of a British exit. It is only correct that these are highlighted and looking at the Scottish referendum, the Better Together campaign was effective at keeping such aspects high on the agenda. By bombarding the electorate with worst case scenarios day after day, the Yes side was constantly pushed onto the defensive and this no doubt helped shape the outcome as people thought with their wallets.
At the same time, though, a clear positive image of the EU, and the UK’s place within it, also need to be projected. For this was one way independence campaigners were successful, offering hope in the future with talk of building a better society. On the opposing side, this was not so apparent, though the likes of Sir Menzies Campbell and Gordon Brown did their best to outline how Scotland could thrive in a newly reformed UK. This proved the exception, however, and meant that the pro-Union campaign came across as overwhelmingly negative, generating no great enthusiasm.
Given that as wide a margin of victory as possible is needed, this is something the pro-European campaign needs to avoid, meaning it must be positive and enthusiastic on the whole whilst clear in what can be achieved by staying within the EU.
The Importance of Having a Strong Visual Presence
This links to the last point which characterised the Yes campaign in the Scottish debate: its high-visibility. Anyone who passed through Scotland in the build up to the referendum would no doubt have been struck by the sheer volume of people proudly proclaiming their support for independence. Undoubtedly, this helped generate a sense of momentum which resulted in a much closer outcome than had been expected at the start of the process. Such a strong grassroots movement has remained engaged, helping to propel the Scottish Nationalists to unprecedented success in a British election.
Put simply, the case for Europe needs to be taken to the streets with as many people as possible encouraged to get involved. By doing so, it will have a strong psychological effect and make the cause more effective.
All of this, of course, will be hard to achieve but it is absolutely necessary to make sure that the UK not only remains in the EU but that it then goes on to play a key role moving forward. At the moment, there is too much focus on the pragmatic whereby the risk is that voters will not be properly engaged. This is in contrast to the opposing side whose emotive rhetoric, even if it is based on false premises, is likely to stir more people into action.