“I’m a true centrist: my beliefs put me in the middle… You know what happens to people who drive in the middle of the road? They get run over.” – Rob Lowe
(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)
You’ve probably heard the line at some point from someone in the upper echelons of the independence campaign. That we need to “appeal to the centre” of Scottish politics and that your radical ideas like publicly owned energy, local democracy or even just the idea of actively campaigning for independence are, at best, an inconvenience to the Movement or, at worst, are a liability and that you’re actively driving undecided voters away with your antics.
What we must do instead, we are told, is to “appeal to the centre”. We must compromise on our values, our policies and the very narrative upon which we ourselves were drawn to support independence in favour of one that is unassailable in its blandness and .
“The Centre”, you see, is a group of sensible voters who only vote for sensible policies. They’re also absolutely terrified of change so anything that “spooks” the poor, timid creatures will have them pelting away from you as fast as you can pull out your canvassing clipboard.
What we need to do is to make independence as absolutely bland as possible. A “soft indy”, if you will. One that actually won’t change much at all. Just one fewer election every few years. It’ll be fine, those in power say. Just let us take care of everything. Centrism offers balance from extremes and a firm hand at a wheel that would otherwise spin out of control. Not that they’ll be able to articulate where they’re taking you…but that’s not important. Don’t worry about that. You’ll get there safely.
Has anyone ever asked “The Centre” what they think of this? I’m not sure those who want to do the appealing have, though some of the answers are out there.
Who are The Centre?
There’s a useful way of thinking about the spectrum of voters when it comes to independence sentiment. At either extreme, there are hardcore, ideological voters – often nationalists in their own way. They will almost certainly vote. Will almost certainly vote Yes or No depending on their lean. Will almost certainly never, under any circumstances, change their mind. You probably know folk like this. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading this column chances are pretty decent that you are one (though I doubt there will be very many hardcore No voters here. Say hi if you are one. I’d love to hear your side of things). These two extremes are about as far apart from each other in terms of polices and shared goals – which, of course, makes it all the harder for respective campaigners in each camp to talk to each other.
Closer to the middle of the spectrum there are the less convinced or those more open to change or to be convinced. On the Yes side, you’ll find people who have perhaps come to that camp based on discussions about opportunities for change, or the chance to correct injustices. Perhaps convinced of the merits of nationalism even if they don’t define themselves as nationalists per se (or didn’t before they were convinced). Despite my position in the indy movement and my years of campaigning, I put myself somewhere in this camp. My views are, as befitting my background in science, always provisional and subject to testing and change. I’m convinced of the case for indy…but I never take my position for granted.
Then there are the camps who sit in “The Centre. The “undecided” and “soft No” voters who are often one and the same in same way that “not proven” and “not guilty” are shades with the same acquittal. Whether they are convinceable but not yet convinced, or tempted but not willing to take the chance on the day, their vote – if they cast one – is the same.
Indy in the Middle
As some will be aware, I’ve been tracking indy sentiment in Scotland not just at the surface headline level – which if that’s the only thing you look at, you’d believe that the indy landscape is basically unchanged since 2014 – 50% plus or minus a few points here or there. Underneath, the story is far more interesting, with large shifts within various demographics. The “age gap” has widened, with younger voters now much more pro-indy than older voters…but only because older voters are shifting to Yes more slowly than younger voters (there’s also little evidence of that extremely ageist trope that we just need to wait for old No voters to “die off”). More voters of “pro-union” parties are themselves pro-indy than you think (there are more pro-indy Tory voters in Scotland than paid up members of the party). “New Scots” have completely flipped from some of the strongest No voters in 2014 to some of the strongest Yes voters – more so than Scots born in Scotland at this point.
But there’s another pattern that comes out of many of these polls. If you look at a question that is particularly divisive down indy lines then you see that truly undecided voters look a lot more like Yes voters than they do No voters (Have a close look at the data tables here for some examples of this).
This is backed up by research that was conducted a few years ago that found that the main difference between a “soft-Yes” voter and a “soft-No” voter (or the undecided in the middle) wasn’t a shift in attitudes (of the kind that separates Yes voters from extreme No voters) but simply a difference in perceived Risk vs Reward. Someone like myself likely sees the rewards of indy and considers them worth the risks while also seeing a lack of reward in the No campaign’s offer and keenly feeling the risks of remaining in the UK. Someone just over the centre line from me likely feels the risks of Indy a bit more keenly than I do, or perhaps the rewards are just a bit less visible.
The politics of a bland, beige, managerial “Don’t worry about it” Centrism doesn’t improve the reward as it very intentionally doesn’t give anyone anything to vote for. It doesn’t even reduce the perceived risk. “Wait…are you saying that I should be worried about something? Well, I wasn’t before but…”
The Radical Centre
And the real kicker about this bland plan of Centrism is that when you actually ask people what they want…they can get very radical indeed. They might not believe you if you say you can deliver it – but that’s not the same as not believing your vision.
I know this through my experience with the Scottish Climate Assembly in 2021. This was a group of randomly selected residents of Scotland, balanced by age, gender, income, geography and a host of other factors. They were a balanced and representative sample of Scotland and thus could, as closely as possible, speak for “what Scotland wants” on any given issue. Experts (including myself) were brought in to explain various aspects of the climate emergency and give advice on solutions, policies and ideas. The Assembly discussed them in various groups and seminars and then produced a report of their recommendations to the Scottish Government. To give an idea of the scope, let me tell you about just one of them.
In 2019 when we published our Common Home Plan, we had a quite strong discussion in the team about whether or not to include the idea of an “Externality Tax” – trade border tariff on imported goods to account for the pollution created by their manufacture and transport and to deliberately de-incentivise imports in favour of domestic production. It would do Scotland no good to decarbonise all of our industries and agriculture, only to be undercut by goods brought in by a country that slashed and burned its rainforest and used child labour and coal power to make goods we bought from them. It’s a climate-sensible policy but it flies in the face of decades of “global free-markets” and we thought if any policy would get pushback from the public, it’d be that one.
The 2021 Scottish Climate Assembly not only agreed that this policy was a good idea, 94% of this representative sample of Scotland voted for it. The most radical policy we almost didn’t include in our radical vision for a Green New Deal hit support levels that I doubt we’d see in a poll if the question was “Are puppies cute?”
Please read their recommendations for action and compare what the people of Scotland are calling for on climate compared to what politicians are offering or what they tell us is the best they can do without spooking their not-yet-voters.
The Story of Indy
The story of indy is, I believe, what will make the indy campaign the winning force it should be. Many voters already believe that our vision for an independent Scotland is one that is appealing, one that they agree with at heart and one that is fundamentally at odds with any proactive story offered by the No campaign (that is, the actual vision for Britain being offered to voters, not just the campaign of “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” that is designed to increase the perceived risk of our vision) but it’s one that we haven’t quite convinced some that we can competently deliver or deliver without exceeding their maximum tolerance for risk.
What they will not be convinced by is the kind of valueless “Don’t Worry About It” Centrism that simply tries to make nothing sound as safe as possible.
Especially not when what “The Centre” is actually telling us is that they want what we want, they just want us to tell them it’s worth voting for and that we’re capable of delivering on those promises of a better, independent Scotland.