Repeating History: the second time as failure Government Analysis in the Scottish and EU referendums

Repeating History: the second time as failure Government Analysis in the Scottish and EU referendums

By Megan Morrison and Jim Gallagher

At a time when some UK politicians think the people have “had enough of experts" and populist politicians in Europe and the USA dismiss mainstream analysis, a new paper by Megan Morrison ( Repeating History - Megan Morrison ) reviews how the UK  government sought to use arguments based on detailed economic and policy analysis in two existential referendums to garner support for its stances: to vote No during the Scottish Independence vote in 2014, and to vote Remain during the Brexit vote in 2016. The similarities and differences between these two campaigns are instructive. 

Some forgotten government publications 

The Scottish Referendum Analysis - which encompassed constitutional, defence and foreign, welfare, economic and social policy issues- sought to inform and persuade Scottish voters. It tried to set out the advantages of the present constitutional arrangements, and the risks of independence. The papers were prepared and published by the UK government but they were informally quality assured by external academic advisers.  

The Scottish Referendum Analysis formed the template for a similar series of publications in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. The European Referendum analytical papers covered very similar ground. 

Making the case for different unions 

It seems the government regarded the Scottish Referendum Analysis as successful. Not only did they repeat the process, covering much of the same ground, but reprised the two basic themes for the 2016 referendum. First, just as Scotland had the "best of both worlds" as part of the United Kingdom (a slogan heavily used in the 2014 campaign) by having many of the opportunities of independence through devolution, while pooling economic and social risks with the United Kingdom, so the UK had the “best of both worlds” in the EU, by virtue of its unique membership with a series of defined opt-outs, notably in relation to the Euro.

Secondly, there was a strong emphasis in both series on the economic risks of separation. These, of course, reflected and provided ammunition for the themes in the referendum campaigns. 

While the basic arguments were similar, the material of the two campaigns revealed the quite profound differences between the unions being defended. Breaking up the UK would have involved Scotland setting up the institutions of a new state and developing a different foreign and defence policy, armed forces etc. But these costs and risks were not reflected in the EU Referendum reports, or were discussed to a more limited extent: security issues in the EU case, for example, were largely confined to antiterrorism cooperation. These arise fairly obviously from the different natures of the two unions. As the UK is a currency and fiscal union, it was straightforward to present the economic risks of Scottish independence in terms which resonated with the public. The major risks identified included "losing the pound" (justified by extensive economic analysis on what constituted an optimum currency area) and potentially big cuts in public spending from the end of fiscal transfers to Scotland from the rest of the UK.  

 The EU series, however, had to rely on the rather thinner gruel of the economic downside of trade reductions from exiting the EU single market or customs union. While the effect of independence on trade also featured in the Scottish case, these trade arguments were hardly at its centre. Similarly, the welfare union of the UK – exemplified by demographic risk sharing old age pensions – was a strong card in the Scotland Analysis series, but wholly absent from the EU case.  

Overall, the EU Referendum Series identified risks which, while real, were more abstract than the pound or pension in your pocket. 

Look at the language 

Megan Morrison's paper however identifies a more profound difference. Even though the Scottish Referendum Analysis papers are self-consciously analytical and evidence driven, the UK government’s language about Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom has a strong emotional overtone. It speaks of shared identity, common history and emotional connection, and not merely shared transactional interests. The union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is presented throughout as being undeniably a good thing.  

By contrast, the government’s language in the EU papers is uniformly utilitarian. The advantages the UK was said to obtain from its membership of the EU were largely economic or the fruit of practical cooperation. The "best of both worlds" does not speak of the advantages of being both British and European, but rather of the alleged downsides of EU membership which the UK's opt-outs have avoided. Nowhere in the series is membership of the EU presented as an unequivocal good. 

This, of course, reflects the deep ambivalence in the Conservative party and government about relations with Europe which led to the EU referendum in the first place. Taken together with the greater difficulty in identifying the risks which would impact on ordinary people, compared to the Scottish independence case, this ambivalence undermined the effectiveness of the EU Referendum Series. The government was trying to replicate what it saw as the success of its Scottish Referendum Analysis Series. But it’s not just utilitarian economic arguments that sway voters, and the government could hardly find a positive word to say about the European project.  

Megan Morrison is an LLB graduate of the University of Glasgow.

Jim Gallagher is a visiting professor at the University of Glasgow, School of Law.

Professor Tom Campbell (1938-2019)

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