'Project fear won't work this time': Comms experts debate a second Scottish Referendum

How would a second Scottish Independence referendum differ from the first? Will it happen at all? And could Scotland vote to leave the UK? We ask comms experts.

Picture from a pro-Independence march in 2014. Will Scotland decide again?
Picture from a pro-Independence march in 2014. Will Scotland decide again?

In a day of high drama in UK politics, both houses of Parliament ratified the Bill yesterday giving Theresa May authority to trigger Article 50 and push for Brexit.

But north of the border, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was making headlines of her own, calling for the UK Government to grant a second referendum on Scottish Independence in 2018 or 2019. May has spoken strongly against the idea, but with so much uncertainty ahead, few would reject outright the prospect of Scottish voters going to the polls once more.

PRWeek asked comms and public affairs experts from both sides of the border to give their views on 'IndyRef2':

1) From a comms perspective, how would you judge Nicola Sturgeon's announcement on plans to push for a second referendum?

Iain Anderson, executive chairman, Cicero Group.

"The First Minister wanted a First Ministerial backdrop for her announcement. She could have waited until the SNP Spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend to make the call, but being surrounded by the flag-waving faithful would not have appealed to wavering voters. So her choice of Bute House was the right call. However her decision to make that call before the Brexit negotiations have even begun is a major gamble. Current polls suggest there is not an overwhelming desire to have a second referendum. Her judgement is a long campaign allows momentum to be built, but it depends on a Brexit cliff edge rather than a good EU deal."

Charandeep Singh, head of external relations, Scottish Chambers of Commerce

"The announcement on Monday certainly came as a surprise and most folk, politically engaged or not, were genuinely interested to hear what was being announced. I always find an interesting measure is whether people are talking about it on the commute home and following the news on their smartphones, and I would absolutely say that the announcement was a popular topic on Monday - as well as that night’s dinner plans! From a PR perspective, the announcement got people talking and that’s a success. Translating that into tangible support and then ultimately votes, will be up to each of the campaigns."

Alex Deane, MD strategic comms and head of public affairs UK, FTI Consulting

"Sturgeon seems to have had her arm twisted - by her party in general or Salmond in particular - to do this call for a second referendum. She wasn't wholly committed and has made excuses via back channels already. Commit or don't do it. Go big or go home (tae think again)."

Gill Morris, founder, Devo Connect

"Nicola’s Indy2 announcement was hardly a surprise, but another shockwave nonetheless for Theresa, who looks increasingly flappable and flaky. Nicola knows what she’s doing and why wouldn’t she go for it? Scotland didn’t vote for Brexit and however crazy it might seem economically to hard Brexiteers, Indy2 makes Brexit very tricky. The UK will look like a laughing stock at the negotiation table if its devolved nations are not on the same page."

Ed McRandal, associate director, Insight Consulting Group

"In Canada, they termed it the ‘Neverendum’ – a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime vote, transformed into decades of repeat questioning. What happened in Quebec is now mirrored in Holyrood. Sturgeon’s timing in calling for a referendum is very deliberate. She knows the Government will not grant a second vote before exiting the EU, but that Brexit provides a high-profile platform to propagate the view that Westminster politicians are blocking the will of the Scottish people."

2) How would a second Scottish Referendum differ from the first, in terms of the key messages and tactics?

Iain Anderson: "Many of the same questions remain for Scots voters as the ones they posed in 2014. What will happen to pensions, the pound and the economy. But – and this is what the London ‘bubble’ fails to see - the Brexit vote has changed the dynamic significantly and fuelled identity politics further. So while the SNP needs to answer the hard economic questions, the pro UK campaign can’t simply re run ‘project fear’."

Charandeep Singh: "If the Scottish Referendum goes ahead, it cannot simply be a re-run of the 2014 Referendum - a second referendum would have to exist on its own merits and reflect current economic and social factors. Tackling the issues that voters are most concerned about should be at the core of any campaign tactics, and that must also include those issues that did not have clarity in 2014, such as currency. I do think that a key element of future campaigns may well include what Scotland’s and UK’s place in the world will be and as leaders grapple with leadership on the world stage and some nations look inward, our desire to be more global must be balanced with the political and social mood of other countries."

Alex Deane: "It would play much more on the uncertainty of Brexit - ironically, given the issue of whether Scotland would be in the EU or not (not uncertain: it wouldn't)."

Gill Morris: "Nicola’s problem is that things have moved on since Indy1 and Indy2 is definitely not the same proposition. A Scotland outside the UK but inside Europe is hard to fathom but not impossible to predict. Nicola will strike while the iron’s hot and whatever happens, negotiations look likely to be derailed."

Ed McRandal: "Whilst this should be a concern for unionists, there are major risks for the SNP. Brexit may convince the Scottish people that the consequences of leaving one political and economic union mean it’s not yet time to risk another."

3) Will a second Scottish Referendum happen before the end of this decade, and if so, what will the result be?

Iain Anderson: "Yes. The initial ping pong between Sturgeon and May will be about timing, but a referendum will be hard to resist after 2019. I would expect Scotland to go to the polls around May 2019 after the Brexit deal or ‘no deal’ is done. With current opinion polls around 50:50, it is impossible to say what will happen."

Charandeep Singh: "I do think - if it is to happen - that the Referendum will take place before 2020. The real question here is on the specific timing: will it take place before we leave the European Union or after, and the UK general elections must be considered as well. Either way, both sides are crafting their messages carefully and are dealing their cards with their political strategies in mind. Ultimately, it's the voters that will deal the trump card."

Alex Deane: "Will happen. Will be lost again."

Gill Morris: "[Sturgeon] may well win and if she does it will be the beginning of the end for Theresa May."

Ed McRandal: "We will see a second referendum in the next 10 years."

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