Liam Booth-Smith

The independence referendum: lessons from Chile (1988)

September 2, 2014

Scottish independence feels important. I use the word feel because whilst I know that such a split would be momentous, no one as yet has been able to explain in any detail how. This lack of detail appears to be benefiting the pro-independence camp, with Yes closing the gap in recent polls. In turn this has produced an injured response from the Better Together camp; including protestations at ‘co-ordinated hecklers’, requesting police officers at polling booths and the latest ‘I love my family… so I’m voting no’ campaign posters. All in all, it’s pointing towards a very fractious and divisive election that whatever the outcome will leave the country anything but united. Many are now pointing the finger at the Better Together team and asking whether they’ve run their campaign the right way.

The whole saga makes me think the No camp should have done a little more digging into some referenda from the recent past and unearthed the example of Chile in 1988. You see dictator ex tempore Augusto Pinochet, every once and a while, would offer his people a referendum on whether they would like him to continue as President or whether they would like an open election. Essentially, voting yes meant you wanted Pinochet to stay and no for an open election. (It was more complex than this, with parliamentary elections being included too and constitutional ratifications happening at the same time etc… but the above is the gist of it).

In the book Alpha Dogs, the story of globe-trotting political consultants Sawyer Miller, we learn how the campaign to oust Pinochet and bring democracy to Chile unfolds. After conducting extensive research on the population and their political consciousness, and using some choice analogies to elucidate their points (not fit for this blog), they deduced that the fundamental challenge was; how do you make people feel good about voting No?

Essentially, those who wanted democracy in Chile were charged with finding a way to make No a more positive answer than Yes. The Better Together campaign in Scotland were invested with a similar responsibility. It’s not clear to me, from either exploration of the respective campaigns or the media narrative that the Better Together group has really engaged with this. I’d go as far to say that this is their biggest strategic oversight. Alex Salmond’s team haven’t offered up a convincingly positive vision for an independent Scotland but in the absence of a response it’s been left looking like the only vision for Scotland.

Better Together doesn’t appear to be making many people feel good about its campaign. Nor does it make saying No a positive choice for a happier future, instead we have a campaign that increasingly feels like it’s attempting to guilt the public into compliance. In today’s Times Magnus Linklater summed this up nicely: “To be told that you have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the face of the nation and then to be asked to say No is, at best, counterintuitive, at worst a disappointment.” The Chilean campaigners understood that to feel good when voting No, you had to make No about “thinking in the future”.

Scotland isn’t Chile, and 2014 isn’t 1988. Yet I can’t help but feel the 1988 experience in making No a more positive answer than Yes has relevance for the referendum being fought in the UK right now. This should have been an election about two competing visions with the more positive and promising winning out. Instead it’s a choice between the promise of a vision and no vision at all. No wonder the gap seems to be closing.

Its relevance for local public services? Like many of the other issues of substance, that would appear to be one of the details.

The above Youtube clip is from the film No which is a dramatic interpretation of the referendum campaign which brought democracy to Chile.

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