Poetry vs. spreadsheets: Why Scotland’s ‘Yes’ campaign lost

“Yes” made their case using poetry and “No” made their case using spreadsheets

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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In the end, I opposed the breaking up of the Union and I am relieved that Scotland decided against making a historical mistake. I have written many pieces on why I believed the case for Scottish independence had not been made, but now I think it is time to take stock and look at the reasons why Scots decided to vote “No.”

I think what captures the mood of the nation best was this line I heard on the radio from a phone-in guest: “Yes” made their case using poetry and “No” made their case using spreadsheets. And when it came down to it, the poetry touched the spirit but it could not guarantee pensions, job security and basic currency arrangements so Scots showed their inherently sensible and pragmatic side, and were thus more swayed by the spreadsheets.

Now this is not to detract from the successes of the Yes Campaign. Though I have opposed many of their campaign tactics, there is no getting away from the fact that Alex Salmond has, indeed through the use of poetry, fired up a generation and woken Scotland up to the possibilities of history. This campaign has made Scots a proud and self-confident people once more, and it was as a proud and self-confident people that they decided that remaining in the Union was the better alternative for themselves and for their children.

In the face of the poetry of the Yes Scotland, Better Together was rhetorically disarmed: how can anyone argue against the intuitive appeal of calls that “Scotland's future should be in Scotland’s hands” or that “money raised in Scotland should be spent by Scotland for the Scottish people?” That much is common sense.

“Yes” made their case using poetry and “No” made their case using spreadsheets

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But in a mature political culture, and Scotland proved to be just that, wonderful rhetoric is not enough. There needs to be depth of understanding and of purpose to that rhetoric. And it seems to me that Scots took the time to scratch beneath the seductive surface of the positive message of “Yes We Can,” and found that what we could was limited. And to say that is not unpatriotic – it is not to underestimate the Scottish people. It is simply to recognize that we are a small, open economy and our wealth and security depends to a very large extent on things way outside our democratic control.

That is a point that the Yes Campaign has refused to engage with seriously, and in doing so they lost the confidence of the Scottish people. Meanwhile, the “dull,” “negative” and “uninspiring” No Campaign was successfully making the case that we have a better chance of defending ourselves against those external economic and political forces as part of something bigger: the UK – imperfect and often infuriating a political construct as it may be.

Unworkable proposals

As chair of a think tank that had a dedicated program on independence, we produced numerous reports which came to that conclusion over and over again. We interviewed dozens upon dozens of experts on all aspects of independence, from monetary policy to security and defense policy. Some of them were bewildered when we put the SNP post-independence plans to them. In one instance, one of my researchers asked a very senior and respected monetary economist for his opinion on some passages from the SNP White Paper which we sent to him. The economist was furious with us because he thought that the passages we sent him were fabricated and were designed to ensnare him to make some silly comments. He did not think it plausible that the SNP could have put such unworkable proposals forward.

The fatal mistake for the Yes Campaign, I believe, was the fact that when challenged on these issues, they largely refused to engage with the questions. Their strategy was very simple: ignore any contradictory evidence and stick to the message. So when we produced evidence that the MOD will not build Royal Navy Ships in Scotland after independence their response was “Yes they will.” When the three Westminster parties, along with the governor of the Bank of England and permanent secretary to the Treasury, argued against a currency union post-independence, the SNP response was to dismiss this out of hand. For a while, this tactic seemed effective, and the opinion polls indicated that the SNP campaign was increasingly gaining traction. But in the end, the Scottish people have seen through this ploy. The questions asked were serious, and voters saw that the SNP refused to acknowledge their seriousness.

In the end, I think that the result was a triumph for Scotland and a resounding success for our political culture. We allowed ourselves to be inspired by the rhetoric of the Yes Campaign, but did not lose sight of the seriousness of the decision that faced us. The Yes Campaign was slick and on message but underestimated the maturity of the Scottish people. Instead, we looked at the questions, we weighed up the risks, calculated our spreadsheets and decided that we are Better Together.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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