8 October 2015

Listening to panels and talking to people at this year’s Labour party conference, I was struck at just how often the link between the Scottish independence referendum and the EU referendum was made (it came up at the Conservative conference though not quite as strongly). Yes, it is an obvious one and one that has been made consistently over the recent months. However, the way some people were speaking, it seemed almost as if it they expected an exact re-run and that direct lessons from Scotland can be translated into the EU referendum campaign. There are no doubt some useful lessons to be learnt (more on this below), but I would be cautious about drawing too many parallels between two very different issues.

The EU evokes different emotions to the UK union

One of the primary lessons which people (particularly those on the Remain side) are taking from the Scottish referendum into the EU referendum is that you cannot let one side own the emotional and passionate case. The logic being that if those in favour of the UK union had made a stronger emotional case for keeping it together, this would have helped to counter the strong emotional draw of the SNP and Scottish nationalism. This may well be true for Scotland, but I’m not so sure it applies for the EU and therefore does not translate particularly well into a campaign strategy. There is little (positive) emotional feeling towards the EU in UK and those that do have it are guaranteed to vote to remain in the EU in any case. Trying to make a strong emotional case to stay in the EU is largely likely to fall on deaf ears and may well put some people off. In particular, it is unlikely to appeal to the key swing voters who tend to vote on more pragmatic terms.

So I don’t think the lessons on emotional arguments should be overdone. That said, I think the underlying lesson – that a positive message helps – does still have some validity. Both sides should take account of this. The ‘Leave’ side looks a bit ahead of the game here, highlighting the positive aspect of opening up to the rest of the world, regaining some sovereignty and some greater regulatory freedom (however, it also needs to balance out the perceived toxicity of UKIP and Nigel Farage). If the emotional argument is unlikely to work it is not immediately clear what the Remain side will trumpet in positive terms. My personal approach (if I were in their position) would be to back the reform programme and highlight the fact that the EU is undergoing significant changes, which may be advantageous for the UK. The combination of reform to pull back from ever closer union and the fact that the EU is changing, with many other states accepting it isn’t working, supplemented with the benefits of the single market, could at least send the message that now is not the time to leave.

The economics are not as clear cut

Another important difference is that the economic case is not nearly as clear cut with regards to the impact of leaving the EU as it was for Scotland leaving the UK. Ultimately, leaving a currency union is a much more complex issue than leaving a trade/customs union (of course itself complicated) as the debate around Scotland’s currency and debt demonstrated. There will be plenty of issues for the UK to deal with but not having the currency or debt questions will make things at least a bit simpler. Ultimately, as we showed in our Brexit report, the impact of a Brexit on GDP could be anywhere between -2.2% and +1.6% depending on the choices the UK makes outside the EU. As such running a ‘project fear’ campaign on the economic consequences will be more challenging in the EU referendum than the Scottish referendum.

Certainty vs. uncertainty?

To me and others who follow this debate closely, it is clear that life for the UK inside the EU is probably not as settled as life for Scotland inside the UK. The EU is facing a number of serious challenges (the Eurozone, Russia/Ukraine, the refugee crisis) and is in the process of changing as it responds to them (albeit slowly). As such, it is not entirely clear how the EU will look in five or ten years. That said, it is not yet clear whether this is apparent to the wider public and whether they will understand the nuance of a changing EU, especially since many will only follow the debate on the eve of the referendum. As such this may or may not turn out to be similar to Scotland. There will be a tussle between the two sides over the picture of the UK inside the EU. The Remain side will try to paint it as stable, secure and certain, while the Leave side will attempt (and already has been) to highlight the potential uncertainty and the push for deeper integration towards a federal state.

What lessons can we learn from the Scottish referendum for the EU referendum?

These points not withstanding, there are of course some lessons which can be applied across both votes or at least provide some indications or guidelines for the upcoming referendum.

  • Clear alternative needed – Linked to the point above, if the picture you are selling outside the union, be it the UK or the EU, is uncertain or unclear, it might well be hard to convince cautious swing voters. This is particularly true if there are competing visions trying to be sold to voters. This has implications or lessons for both sides. For the Remain side, this would be an aspect which they could well focus on and highlight in terms of uncertainty. For the Leave side, they would do well to try to minimise the risk here and present as clear and coherent a picture as possible of life outside the EU.
  • Business can have an impact – This suffers from a similar problem as the broader economic argument, which is less clear cut, but I think still applies to an extent. Business can provide real world examples of the benefits and costs of the both staying in and leaving the EU. As we saw in Scotland, where a big late business push boosted the In side. Arguably, the economic points had less genuine cut through until boosted by business.
  • Micro/local/regional targeting – campaigning is arguably at its most effective when it is as local as possible and the message is targeted/tailored to small groups. Both sides will need to explain how their vision will impact local communities for the better and motivate these people to get out and spread the word.
  • Hard for voters to discern between complex arguments – while this seems obvious it is still an important lesson. As with Scotland, the EU referendum will involve a number of complex issues. It is very hard for voters, who are often new to these issues, to discern who is correct when both sides claim to be. We saw this in particular with some of the economic arguments around Scottish independence. As such, simple and clear messages will be important.

It’s tough to form a coherent picture out of all of this. But I think the overriding point is that while a positive case is needed, it does not have to be and probably should not be an overly emotional one. Both sides will also have a struggle on their hands to boil down the arguments to simple and clear messages as well as presenting their vision of the world as a certain and stable one.