A guest post by Scott Hamilton
As we move into referendum day, it is instructive to look at an interesting example from the recent history of constitutional referenda - namely the Irish vote in 2001 on the Treaty of Nice. Whilst the referendum is not exactly like the Scottish independence referendum, there are certain parallels between the campaigns, how they have been run, and how the polls can spectacularly fail to predict the outcome of such a contest even a few days from the vote.
In his excellent book “A Comparative Study of Referendums: Government by the People, Second Edition", Jens Qvortrup describes the campaign leading up to the 2001 referendum and provides some insight into what caused the shock result. Much of the book is available on the wonderful Google Books website.
All conventional wisdom pointed to a “Yes” vote- this was the position of the Irish Government of and the mainstream political parties, the mainstream media in Ireland and most “establishment” voices. The “no” campaign comprised active “grassroot” campaigners and a band of organisations united around a simple message- to reject the Treaty of Nice.
My contention here is that the “Yes” in the Irish example provided by Qvortrup has strong parallels with the “No” in the Scottish referendum. In the discussion below, all that is required is to swap “Yes” for “No” and vice versa.
In the run up to the referendum the Irish Government was doing well in domestic opinion polls, with some 86% of the Irish population agreeing that being in Europe was good for Ireland, leading some to believe the referendum was a foregone conclusion- people would, conventional wisdom suggested, get behind the government, and vote “Yes” to ratify the treaty.
The main political parties supported the “Yes” side, bolstered by support from big business, most trades unions, farming bodies and importantly- the mainstream media. This seemed to suggest an easy victory, if only the voters could be trusted to follow the cues and signals given by the parties.
Except that’s not what happened...
The challenge to the orthodoxy came from a varied and determined set of “No” groups whose ground campaign simply outperformed the combined might of their opponents’ entire campaign. The “No” campaign comprised a variety of enthusiastic groups such as “No to Nice”, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Justice and Anti-Poverty Body Action from Ireland, the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, the National Platform and the Christian Alliance. There are certainly obvious parallels between the Scottish Yes campaign here.
In addition the “Yes” parties proved unable to work together with a general election looming in 2002; it seems that their lack of co-operation was prompted by mutual mistrust and party political rivalries. The “No” side was, by contrast, unhampered by such rivalry.
The “Yes” parties simply fell victim to over confidence and an over reliance on their powerful friends and a powerful media. Opinion polls had predicted an easy win for them, though as Qvortrup suggests:
“…alarm bells should have begun to ring on Saturday 2 June (Scott’s note- the vote was on 7th June) when an Irish Times- MRBI poll revealed that 45 percent intended to vote “yes”, whereas the figure two weeks previously had been 52%; some 28% indicated they would be voting “no”, and increase of 7% on the earlier poll; while the number of those undecided remained the same at 27%. Somewhat surprisingly, the politicians took little notice of the poll.
The “yes” campaign was lackluster and ineffective: the political parties did not present a unified front, other than agreeing on the necessity for a “yes” result; indeed they seemed more concerned with party-political point scoring, than with securing a “yes” vote”.
The “No” campaign was mainly undertaken using good old fashioned door to door canvassing, something that had not been the norm in Ireland for many years. The reader can decide which campaign in the Scottish referendum most closely parallels this approach.
“The polls indicated that the Government was within close range of victory. The outcome would- or at least could- have been very different had the “yes” parties been able (and willing) to co-operate, but that was not the case. The ”yes” side was split by internal rivalries between the parties, and the focus on the Tipperary by-election created tension in the camp. Consequently the parties of the “yes” side failed to co-operate. The “no” side by contrast succeeded in maintaining unity- ostensibly because the parties involved were too ideologically heterogeneous to pose an electoral threat to each other”.
So, in summary - the losing side was made up of political rivals who were suspicious of each other, given an election was looming. The losing side let this rivalry negatively affect their campaign and they failed to present a united front. The losing side relied too heavily on a compliant media, and lacked an effective and broad ground campaign. The losing side took solace in the polls, believing that they had the result sewn up long before the vote, “how can we lose?”. The losing side failed to recognise the ground shifting behind their feet only days before the vote, and when they did, they lacked the tools to counter the shift in opinion.
The losing side lost.
More excerpts of Dr Qvortrup’s book are available at Google Books. See page 72 and the available pages nearby for more.