Three fascinating aspects of the Scottish referendum

All being well I will be speaking at a lunchtime conference of the forthcoming Scottish referendum in an event at the Lanyon Building at Queen’s University tomorrow (1st). I intend to highlight three interesting but distinct aspects.

The first is the science of polling. Here, I suspect the pollsters are going to struggle. Since 1992, they have come close to perfecting the art of judging how people will vote taking into account aspects such as gender, class and past voting trends. However, I have looked at the tabs concerning the Scottish referendum and it is extremely difficult to see if they have been extrapolated correctly. We can say that the polls have shifted to the “yes” camp marginally, but we have no idea where they were starting from or what the scale of that shift is. (I suspect, for example, that past voting intention is a much less reliable indicator of how people intend to vote in September than the pollsters are reckoning – but the truth is we don’t know.)

The second, also touched on at a recent conference at the Ulster Museum (part of which I chaired), is the notion of “emotion”. The campaign has been largely dry and uninspiring, not least because it has been based almost solely on facts. However, how those facts are interpreted is almost always pre-determined: for example, Nationalists assume the Chancellor was bluffing about not allowing currency union; Unionists assume he wasn’t. People are not making judgements based on the facts, but making facts based on their pre-judgements. This, by the way, is what most voters nearly always do – it’s a relevant point everywhere.

The third is Northern Ireland’s response, and perhaps specifically Unionists’ failure to mount any serious defence of the Union at a UK level. This is unsurprising, but it worth again pointing to the peculiarity of the Northern Ireland Unionist’s inability to cope with anything other than the status quo. The Unionist assumption has always been that the rest of the world will remain stable while Northern Ireland’s place within the “Union” is defended. The fact that the biggest threat to that Union comes from Scotland not Ireland, and from democrats not terrorists, seems to have taken Unionists by surprise. For all that, the same accusation may be pointed at Irish Nationalists – have they really made any preparation for a UK without Scotland? Have they considered how a case for Irish Unity could be developed in that context (perhaps favourable for them in the sense that the UK is weakened; yet also unfavourable in the sense that the geographical integrity of islands upon which much of their case seems to be based would so obviously be breached).

However dry and dull the Scottish debate has been, at least the Scots will be voting (emotionally or otherwise) on their future. Is Northern Ireland capable of becoming pro-active in the same way?


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