Familiar leadership strategies play out in final stretch of Scottish campaign

10 September 2014 -


The referendum on Scottish Independence is a week away and, amid nationalist poll gains, the debate on the UK’s future has caught fire

Jon Bennett

With polls apparently neck and neck (though we should treat those results with caution), media that seemed to consider the referendum a regional issue or foregone conclusion are blanketing their front pages. The Queen is being called on to intervene and conspiracy theories abound on the timing of the Duchess of Cambridge’s happy news. The battle between Yes and No is yet to be decided – but the narrowing of the polls at such a late stage is something of a victory for the Yes campaign in and of itself. And if we look at the familiar themes that have underpinned the campaigns – the same familiar themes that underpin political contests the world over – we can already call the results for some of the head-to-head battles that may have secured this early success.

Firstly, “believe that things can be different” has beaten “fear of the unknown”. Alex Salmond’s picture of a brighter future has faced down the suggestion that Scotland is giving up security and stepping into the abyss. Perhaps a few voters will get cold feet on the day, but movement in the polls suggests that advocates of change have campaigned more successfully so far.


Secondly, “emotional appeal” looks to have triumphed over “technical expertise”. The Yes campaign is built on a long history of nationalism and shared identity that speaks to a large chunk of the electorate. This passionate, emotive call to arms seems, for now at least, to have overpowered accusations from the No camp that an Independent Scotland would have no currency and descend into recession. Whether or not those latter arguments are valid, they are complex to communicate and the language around them is naturally technical. The No campaign has failed to find a simple and compelling way to turn sound technical points into winning arguments.

Thirdly, the “desire for change” has triumphed over the status quo. However happy we are with our lot, there’s always room for improvement, so politicians who can paint an exciting and better future capture the public imagination. That’s why the strategy for the No campaign has turned at the last and the main Westminster parties are now touting a new settlement for Scotland, as set out by Gordon Brown. With the referendum choice reframed as independence or devolution-max, the No campaign may have found something it stands for that will also appeal to a majority of the Scots.

Finally, it remains to be seen which strategy will triumph in the battle between “momentum” and “wake-up call”. It’s well documented that people like to vote for the winning side. And if they feel a result they support is possible, they are more inclined to turn out and support it. The tightening polls should therefore be heartening for the nationalists. However, some voters – particularly those who, on balance, support the status quo but thought the contest would never get this close – will be inspired to vote by the realisation that every cross in the box counts. This sentiment is turned into electoral tactic by politicians up and down the country who drop last minute polling day leaflets (prepared weeks in advance) that suggest “it’s neck and neck” to shake out their more apathetic supporters.

This psychological battle, like the overall result, could go either way.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications

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