The recent Survation poll for the anti-Independence pressure group, Scotland in Union, suggests a strong majority of 60% who would vote against ‘leaving the United Kingdom.’
It does look to be pretty bad news for supporters of the Yes campaign even though the gap narrows the more you ask the question, against the background of worsening Brexit situation, with the threat of no deal at all bringing it to only 4 points, at 52% for remaining and 48% for leaving.
One obvious problem with the poll lies in the use of the word ‘remain’, so strongly associated with Brexit. Could some respondents have been confused as to whether they were commenting on the EU or the UK?
It is, of course, just one poll and might be an outlier with findings not repeated by other polls. We’ll see.
There are, however, two factors, of a more psychological than psephological nature, which might be consolation for us.
Psephology /sɪˈfɒlədʒi/ (from Greek psephos ψῆφος, ‘pebble’, as the Greeks used pebbles as ballots) is a branch of political science which deals with the study and scientific analysis of elections. Psephology uses historical precinct voting data, public opinion polls, campaign finance information and similar statistical data.
The two psychological factors I want to consider are the perhaps overlapping effects of asking questions about change against the background of the already anxiety and confusion-inducing Brexit chaos, the choice of the word ‘leave’.
First, it looks as if the greater the Brexit disaster prediction, the greater the apparent willingness to be prepared to leave the UK when answering questions framed in terms of it. However, was there an effect, regardless of this framing, of the overall background uncertainty about Brexit much dramatized by the media, when the survey was undertaken on 9th to 13th November?
The anxiety-inducing climate on 9th-13th November
The above image from the Sun newspaper and these headlines at the time of the survey capture the mood:
Theresa May doesn’t have a Brexit deal to put to her … – The Sun
Ministers arrive at No10 for emergency one-on-one … – The Su
‘Four Cabinet ministers on the verge of quitting’ over … – The Sun
The Herald had these:
Outrage over EU and UK ‘agreed Brexit deal text’ | HeraldScotlan
Brown predicts second referendum on Brexit | HeraldScotland
The mediated climate on those days was one of generalised chaos and uncertainty rather than one of particular negativity about any one Brexit outcome.
There is research evidence suggesting that in uncertain times, the perceived need for order and to avoid uncertainty or danger, tends to produce political conservatism, that is an aversion to significant change. ‘Leaving the UK’ would be an example of that kind of change, perceived as even more threatening, in times of uncertainty, such as Brexit as it was characterised on those dates. Interestingly, the researchers found no support for the notion that uncertainty and threat perception would encourage extremism in the sense of seeking major changes. If correct, that might contradict notions of the SNP being able to exploit the wider uncertainty to win independence.
Could it be that, despite the responses to those questions referring to negative Brexit outcomes leading to a narrowed gap, between leavers and remainers, the responses to the top-line question about leaving the UK were seriously affected, negatively, by the background mediated climate around Brexit?
The word, ‘leave’
Adopting the negative perspective by asking if responders would be prepared to leave something familiar as opposed to creating something new, may affect responses. The word ‘leave’ has an emotional impact. It reminds us of ‘leave, leave it all behind’ and, once invoked, triggers wider feelings of loss and loneliness.
Scottish independence, to state the bleeding obvious, leaves Scotland still in the same place for the most part. Still physically connected to England and the rest of the UK and still culturally connected by the same transport links, the same access to friends and relatives, the same access to cultural events and the same access to commercial activity. With time to think about it, we see it will be like the relationships with Ireland, Europe or Canada. We are unthreatened by not being in a political union with these places.
But words matter, and negative words like ‘leave’ matter more than most. Researchers have found that: ‘a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear centre of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning.’
So, in the already generalised anxiety-inducing climate of Brexit uncertainty, we introduce in a key position, the word ‘leave’, which is saturated with strong negative connotations of loss, uncertainty and isolation, and offer the alternative comforts of the word ‘remain’? Is the outcome a surprise?
Once the outcome of Brexit is known, is certain, regardless of its final quality, we ask the question:
‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country but remain within the EU?’
I feel sure we get a different answer this time and one less palatable to ‘Scotland in Union.’