Saturday 20 September 2014

Think of a number you don't know

My youngest son, who is 16, was voting for the first time in this referendum. He was really interested in the issues and often asked me what I thought about this or that. As a parent you have to walk a fine line between, on the one hand, passing on some of the stuff you have learned and believe to be true and, on the other, avoiding dumping your prejudices on an impressionable young person. Just because I’m a jaded old fart doesn’t mean that I want my son to believe everything that I do. I earned my degree in scepticism through age and experience, but I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny my boy his right to youthful idealism. Whenever we talk about stuff, I do my best to point out both sides in an argument and encourage him to make up his own mind, rather than take his old man’s word for it.      

In the last few days of the campaign, with the country seemingly at fever pitch, some of his friends posted pictures and videos from a ‘Yes’ rally in the centre of Glasgow. He was obviously excited by these events, intoxicated by the overwhelming positivity and sheer sense of occasion. Scotland, it seemed, was on the verge of something momentous. “Wow” he said, “look at the number of people who are in George Square.” There were a few things I thought of saying at that point, but I settled for posing him what seemed like a slightly abstract question. “That’s impressive” I said, “but how many folk aren’t there?” I wanted him to understand that impressions, opinions and moods are formed through how we respond to the information we choose to absorb. If that information comes from only one or two sources, our view of the big picture is likely to be incomplete. Without wishing to come over all Donald Rumsfeld, I wanted my son to be aware that, in every situation, there are things you think you know, things you know you don’t know and, sometimes, things you don’t know that you don’t know. There were lots of excited and committed folk in the square, celebrating their common cause, but elections are not necessarily won by the people who take to the streets. The numbers registered for this referendum were well in advance of anything witnessed at recent elections, but what did we know about all of these ‘new’ people who had never voted before? And, more to the point, what did we not know about them? 

It seemed to me that the people who favoured Yes were generally quite happy to let you know about it; they certainly outnumbered the people who were willing to state a preference for No. But lots of folk were keeping conspicuously quiet about the referendum. It was clear that not everyone was being swept up in that seemingly unstoppable tide of momentum. As the campaign built to a climax, I concluded that many of the folk who were playing their cards close to their chest were likely to be No voters. I pointed out some time ago that the Yes campaign had gambled with their ‘No Tories in Scotland’ policy. It seemed to give out a clear signal that a certain section of the electorate (i.e. disaffected Labour) was being targeted and that another section was being told that their votes would not be required. I understand why the Yes team felt that they had to take that gamble; they simply could not have captured that disaffected Labour vote by also attempting to woo big and small ‘c’ conservatives. But the picture they based this calculation on was only focused on the things that they knew. 

The Yes team knew that 16.7% of the Scottish electorate was willing to vote Conservative at the last General Election. What they perhaps hadn’t considered was the fact that these people consistently voted Conservative in the full knowledge that, in a 'first-past-the-post' system, they had absolutely no chance of winning. That’s quite a significant statement to make, one that should perhaps have made the Yes team consider the possibility that even more people might have voted Conservative if they felt they had a chance of getting representation. And what the Yes team didn’t know they didn’t know was just how many of those newly-registered referendum voters might naturally be inclined to take a conservative (small c) option on such a contentious issue as the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The fall-out from the Thatcher years has encouraged some people to take it as an article of faith that Scotland has an inbuilt left-leaning majority. Many seem to have forgotten that the Conservatives are the only party ever to have won a majority vote in Scotland in a general election. The country may have changed a lot since 1955, but not to the degree that the Conservatives have been wiped from the political map. Admitting to being a Conservative in Scotland is viewed by some as akin to admitting to being a child molester, but some traditional ‘conservative’ values (hard work, self-reliance, financial prudence) are actually held by many Scottish people. The perception that conservatism is a toxic brand may be true when it comes to public declarations of political allegiance, but it can hardly be described as electorally toxic when the Tories -in spite of everything- consistently poll similar numbers to the LibDems. In private, many folk hold ‘small c’ conservative views, so the Yes team was not only writing off the votes of that committed 16.7% of the electorate (412,855 people); it was writing off the votes of an unspecifiable number of people who: 
a) may have been inclined to espouse conservative values 
and b) may have been incentivised by the prospect that their vote, for once, might actually make a difference in Scotland.   
The Yes team couldn’t possibly have known what that number was, but they appear to have overlooked the possibility that it might have been quite big. As it turns out, the number was big enough for Yes to lose in 28 out of 32 Scottish local authorities. The more voters that turned out, the more likely they were to vote No; of the 24 regions with the biggest turnouts, 23 of them voted against independence. The two regions with the lowest turnouts –Glasgow and Dundee- both went to Yes.     

The referendum process excited my son and made him think about lots of things. He’s a wiser and more politically engaged person now than he was a month or two ago. He understood what I meant by that question about how many folk weren’t at the demonstration. He understands that forming a political view isn’t about re-tweeting one-liners from acerbic comedians or posting links to propaganda sites. He understands that the world is more complicated than some folk would have us believe. He understands that it’s not only worth giving a bit of thought to things that he hadn’t previously considered, it’s also worth considering the possibility that there are things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

Scotland is going to be just fine if his generation grow up understanding that when people say something is a ‘no brainer’, it usually means the exact opposite.

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