Last week the economic case for Scottish Independence, which had been quietly decaying for some time, finally collapsed into rubble. General Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland (known as GERS), a report published by the Scottish government itself, revealed that had the country voted Yes in September 2014, the newly independent Scotland would find itself with a deficit twice as large as the UK’s currently is, an unsustainable state of affairs. With the continuing uncertainty over the oil revenues, rather than inaugurating the new nation with generous childcare policies and new investment programmes, Scotland would be facing austerity measures that would make even George Osborne quiver in his boots.
Stop a stranger on the street and mention GERS, however, and most people in Scotland will look blankly at you. Some may think you are referring to a nickname for Rangers, a once-great Glasgow football team, but most won’t know what you are talking about. While some dense statistics may be just the ammunition pro-union politicians have been looking for in order to attack Nicola Sturgeon (whose evasive reaction to the GERS report was beyond parody) - it will not even register on, let alone change, many voters’ minds. Unionists should therefore be modest, for they may have been vindicated but it does not mean they have won the argument. The Independence Referendum was certainly not decided by numbers alone.
During that debate, the Better Together campaign ran on the complacent assumption that a clear majority of Scots would never countenance the idea of independence and that public opinion would not significantly shift over the course of the campaign. As it turned out, arguing for the status quo proved surprisingly challenging, especially when (as is so often the case in politics) the status quo was far from perfect. With just a little charisma and some populist sentiment, the advocates of change found their message went a long way.
Many have pointed out the parallels between the Scottish referendum and the current debate over Britain’s membership of the EU, especially when it comes to the “passion” question. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and George Galloway may not be the most impressive line-up of politicians ever to lead a political campaign, but each of them understand something about the importance of appealing to hearts as well as minds. For all of his career, Farage has been beating the drum about “taking our country back” while caricaturing the EU as an incompetent and undemocratic institution from which we urgently need to extract ourselves. Like Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Galloway, his charisma helps him convey his message.
Now look across to the other side. In recent weeks, Iain Duncan-Smith and other Tory Eurosceptics have lambasted the timid and reductionist Remain campaign. It hasn’t got a Boris or a Farage, its most high-profile supports instead being business executives unknown to most people, figures such as Mark Carney (nobody’s idea of a populist), as well as a Prime Minister who is known to prefer pragmatism over passion. This week Tony Blair has expressed his concern over the perceived bloodlessness of the Remain campaign, adding that unless there is more “vigour and determination” from the pro-EU side, they may end up throwing away a referendum they seem on course to narrowly win.
It is difficult to tell if facts will be more persuasive than feelings when it comes to the EU debate. With Scotland, especially as the referendum debate reached its conclusion, there was a palpable sense that a lot was at stake. Politicians and pundits didn’t need to claim that it was “the most important decision in a generation” because many voters knew it without being reminded. However, when it comes to the EU Referendum, the latest “most important decision in a generation”, the country seems less bothered. This may change as the 23rd of June approaches, but it remains the case that Europe has always been quite low on the average voter’s list of concerns, as turnout in countless European Elections has demonstrated.
Turnout will decide this referendum, and the most important driver of turnout is age. In many ways, the EU debate is the opposite of the Scottish one, as it is the older voters who support change while the younger voters prefer the status quo. Low turnouts tend to work in favour of the change/leave side, as their voters are determined enough to make their way to the polling station, while the “Remain” voters have less of an incentive to go out and reaffirm their support for the way things are. That is why it is imperative that the Remain side has a bold message if it wants to convince the majority of Britons come referendum day. Dry statistics have their place, but there must be a grander, more rhetorical argument about what it would mean for the country, and how it would look to other European nations, if we gave the EU a big middle finger.
The clock is ticking. Be timid, as Better Together learned, and your unassailable lead will vanish like ice cream on Midsummer’s Day.