Matthew Sherrington: Scotland - it was feelings wot won it. Remember that, charities

The public aren't really as interested in our campaigns as we are - so instead of trying to explain every last detail, charities should focus on appealing to people's emotions, according to our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

The deciding factors in the Scottish referendum were all about emotion and not the rational arguments, no matter what politicians would have you believe.

Now that it is decided and the United Kingdom is still united, the experience of the campaign is a good reminder to charities that leading with the facts is not the right way to connect with and engage the public. The political noise and debate may have been all about the economy, the currency and the viability of an independent Scotland. But it all boiled down to how it made people feel.

The 1706 Treaty of Union, which brought England and Scotland together as a single state, was not born out of a burning populist enthusiasm for Britishness.

Scotland was on the brink of ruin after the financial crash of the Darien Scheme (its disastrous attempt to establish a Scottish colony in present-day Panama). And, with a childless Queen Anne wearing both crowns, the English wanted to head off the risk of Scotland choosing a ruler of their own and, God forbid, a Catholic. The offer of a financial bail-out did the trick.

And so Great Britain was born, out of pragmatic expediency. But as Daniel Defoe reported at the time, "for every Scot in favour there is 99 against". In those days, democracy was limited to the landed gents who had lost their money, and they were the ones who voted it through. The feeling masses didn’t have a say.

In 2014, however, the feeling masses did have a say, and evidently 300 years of union have moderated those feelings somewhat. We know that the no campaign won the result; but was it positive or negative feelings that won the day?

Behind the yes campaign’s veneer of a rational economic case (which was never really made) there was a stronger emotional story of hope, confidence, self-determination and destiny. With it went not a little smug schadenfreude about thumbing a nose at an unpopular and distant Westminster elite.

On the no side, Gordon Brown made an impassioned last-minute case for being Better Together. But the main story was always that of the pound and economy, with the knife twist being the emotional fear of uncertainty. This was especially true among the undecideds who, in the end, held the balance of power. There was no glowing feeling of British pride – the no supporters themselves were adamantly Scottish, which made it a bit confusing.

In the final days, how often were people urged by politicians to make their decision based on the facts? The economic arguments generated more heat than light. The yes camp said Scots would be better off. No said they wouldn’t. And the politicians knew it. They knew they had to press the emotional buttons of hope, fear and pride.

Why should charities pay attention? Because on the whole we can’t help ourselves with our compulsion to explain every last detail of something, to a public audience who aren’t really as interested in it as we are. "If only people knew the facts and understood …"

Yeah, right.  It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the emotion.

PS. If you’re still not sure which emotion won it, slide 7 of this Ipsos Mori poll has the answer.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

This article was originally published on the Third Sector blog

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