The Motivation Triggers Behind the Scottish Referendum

On Sept 18, 2014, 85% of the Scots got off their duff, and went out to vote in a referendum on the future of their country. They had different desires, fears, unknowns to face, promises to evaluate, and over 300 years of history with Britain behind them.

Wouldn’t be interesting to look behind the positions, the emotions, etc to uncover the LAB Profile Triggers driving each side? This kind of analysis is useful to understand some of the forces driving political, social and military movements around the world.

The Yes Side used a combination:

First moving Away From the inequalities and lack of autonomy over the past. Then moving Toward the aspirations of an independent Scotland. They end with Difference and Options language to talk about the new opportunities of an independent Scotland, including oil revenues etc.

And of course, painting the pictures so that people can See compelling images.

This order is important to create movement. People who are dissatisfied have lots of emotion and energy; they are angry about the injustices they experience and want to move away from these. This is the bus stop where you can pick up them up, using Away From language: don’t want, never again, problems of the past, unacceptable, etc.

This is Push Power: Using words and images that help push people away from the things they believe are unacceptable. Here is an example where a celebrity commentator starts with a positive example to set up the Away From critique of the current UK status.

“Swedes, Norwegians and Danes remain on amicable terms; they trade, co-operate and visit each other socially any time they like. They don’t need a pompous, blustering state called Scandinavia, informing them from Stockholm how wonderful they all are, but (kind of) only really meaning Sweden.” – novelist Irvine Welsh.

If you only use Away From language several issues arise which can prevent this momentum from gaining traction. At some point people will be asking about the alternatives to the past, something to rally behind and move toward. When politicians use only Away From language, as in attack ads, they have no control over what viewers move away from. Often they just don’t vote as a result of the very negativity of attack strategies.

Following Away From words and images with Towards helps people see a desired destination. This is attractive and reassuring and creates Pull Power, pulling people to the outcome. Here is an example of both Pull and Push Power, combining Toward language while reminding people of the negative past in Away From language:

“Scotland’s Future is an exciting, informative and insightful vision of what an independent Scotland will be, without the controls, mistakes and unwanted one-size-fits-all policies of Westminster governments.” – Blair Jenkins, Chief Executive of Yes Scotland.

And of course the Yes campaign is all about selling change (Difference) and possibilities (Options). Check this Yes ad out; even the visual design is filled with Options.


Their campaign and the polls before the actual vote were convincing enough to panic all three British political parties into making last minute offerings that had never before been put on the table.

The No Campaign

The No Campaign had a different approach to ensure the votes of people who had already decided for No and more importantly to convince the undecided.

Even though their primary slogan was “Better Together”, they used Away From language fairly consistently throughout the campaign, coupled with Sameness and Difference in combinations.

Away From and Difference: for people who are afraid of change and unknowns. “Why would you take a chance with no guarantees and risk your pension?” This is from a video ad from the “Better Together” campaign:

 “I will not be gambling with my children’s future.”

This is from the controversial ad showing a Mum thinking about the referendum.

And of course appealing to people who want things to stay the same; the Sameness Pattern. Here’s an ad that shows all these patterns:

No thanks

The No Campaign also encouraged people to be External (needing outside guidance), by having economists and other authorities clearly state the dangers of independence.

The Scottish people will take a “massive risk” with their economic future if they vote for independence, former chancellor, and leader of the No campaign, Alistair Darling has warned.

In an interview with the Observer, Darling says that if the Scots vote to leave the 300-year-old union and then keep sterling, adopt their own currency, or join the euro, the country will be plunged into unparalleled economic uncertainty.

“The downsides are immense, the risks are amazing, the uncertainties I just don’t think are worth gambling on, Darling said.”There are times when you should gamble and there are times when you shouldn’t.”*

*From The Guardian:

We know the end of the story: 55.3% No, 44.7% Yes. This tells us that moving Away From the risks and uncertainties was more popular, but only by a little over 10%.

And perhaps there will be change after all, if the British politicians keep their last minute promises for more devolution of powers.

I was so impressed with the civility of this campaign! An inspiration to dysfunctional democracies everywhere.

12 thoughts on “The Motivation Triggers Behind the Scottish Referendum

  1. Patrick Rea

    Hi Shelle

    Your analysis has great relevance for the Trump vote last night – sadly! Mrs Clinton should have called you up.

  2. Michael Whitcroft

    Your analysis is really interesting.
    There was also a high correlation between the ‘yes’ vote and unemployment levels, particularly amongst men aged 20 – 35, which may explain why the ‘yes’ vote was so high in such areas as Glasgow where unemployment is high. Given the anxiety that unemployment creates it is hardly surprising that people voted for change.
    Incidentally some non-domiciled Scots (including my wife!) were furious that they didn’t get a vote…and the some English, such as myself, think it is grossly unfair that Scottish MPs can vote on English affairs!

  3. Untrou

    Hi Harry,
    Well I’ve looked into the vote-rigging claim, but it seems pretty tenuous. There are 10 ballot papers under investigation in Glasgow, there were photos of yes votes piled onto a no table in Dundee, but Dundee yes campaigners later said it was perfectly normal as they provisionally put the bundles on the no table, before the counting. There’s another two videos – one with a woman who seems to be putting most slips on one pile and nothing on the other – but she might in fact simply be separating invalid slips from valid ones. Then there’s a fellow who seems to be writing on the slips, but it might be totally innocuous – hard to believe he’d be cheating in full view of the camera. Then also in Dundee it appears 4 or 5 underage voters were registered. Tenuous evidence in my opinion – the fraud would have to be massive and systemic to make a 10% difference (360.000 votes).

    However, what is true I think is that this was another of those “very British coups” that the establishment resorts to when threatened. First crank up the fear – particularly among pensioners, by getting banks, energy firms, supermarkets, etc…to make veiled threats of moving out or cutting jobs or raising prices or raise the spectre of currency crises. Make sure your friends in the media push hard for a no vote (despite Murdoch’s maverick stance). Get a cross-party campaign going to save the Union. Finally, make a whole bunch of rash promises about devolution that appear to give Scots the best of all worlds : extensive self-government and control of tax revenues, while holding onto the security of the Union. The carrot and the stick. That was enough to swing the balance, quite apart from the type of language used in the campaign by the two sides and the motivational profiles of the voters, which probably reinforced the no vote.

    I was neither for nor against independence – on one hand I felt sad at the idea of seeing Britain truncated and losing the jewel in the crown, on the other I was happy that the Scots were taking their destiny into their own hands. And I admit, as Cameron hinted, that giving the “effing” Tories, the British Establishment and the City of London a huge kick in the goolies was a perspective I rather relished…..

  4. Natsuko Sakamoto

    Hi, Shelle,
    Thank you for a fascinating analysis. You gave me a simple strategy to motivate people to buy-in my new idea, whatever that may be. Start with Away From in the past, gradually move to Toward with the future tense, and finish with Differences and Options. Very logical.

  5. Faythe Buchanan

    Thank you for a look at the referendum through the ‘LAB Lens.’ The Scottish Nationalists have come a long way from the derogatory and away from rhetoric of the 70s when I lived in Scotland. There was then a lot of rebellious excitment in the separatist movement. I wonder if even more concrete ‘towards’ language would have reassured those with fears for their future. If the changes could have been described with more sameness, it might have brought the last 10% (ish) to a place of ‘Yes-Comfort.’ Thanks Shelle

  6. Harry Bishop

    Thats all very well Shelle however there’s a whole lot more going on than direction filters that people don’t realise. Like vote rigging. Like being Scottish and never British. One of the main factors is moving away from what we call London rule and moving towards home rule.
    Scotland is a highly resourceful country that generates massive income for the UK and helps pay off the national debt of course they the British don’t want to lose that.
    David Cameron didn’t want to be the prime minister that was in charge when the Uk broke up. Which would have massive ramifications for the rest of the UK.
    Haven’t heard you talk about values which played a massive part.
    what about the source Internal and external patterns.
    The convincer pattern.
    At the end of the day it was scare tactics that won the no vote-like you said creating a push pull.
    Most scots actually wanted independence including a lot of the No’s that i spoke to it was fear of the unknown which I’ve said all along would work against an Independent Scotland
    My vote was Yes bye the way

    1. Sandra Pickering

      Harry is correct to emphasise that the No campaign was predicated on fear – it was officially titled “Project Fear” by those running it.
      More importantly, from a methodological perspective, most of the published material was transmitted via ‘official’ mainstream media and none of the daily newspapers in Scotland were on the Yes side.
      In contrast, given that the Scottish people were intensely engaged in this debate, it perhaps won’t surprise you to hear that vote-changing debates happened in households, workplaces, pubs and restaurants face-to-face.
      So, to get a genuine understanding of the ‘triggers’ it is necessary to analyse other data (e.g., conversational, word-of-mouth texts) and to analyse the cultural context.
      There are too many of those to mention here but I’ll pick out two examples: 1. the doorstep canvassers from the ‘No’ side inevitably used ‘scare’ stories (Project Fear); 2. sadly, Scotland has a deeply embedded sectarian divide. On one side of this, the ‘Orange Order’ march in Edinburgh was a dog whistle signal to vote No and will have influenced many voters.
      In general, the overall point about “fear” versus “vision” holds.
      Of course, effectiveness needs to be tested against observed behaviour too. One could argue that ‘fear’ won. But that misses the question of the starting point of the campaign. The effect of the campaign was to dramatically increase the support for YES.
      Also, I don’t know whether the rumours of vote-rigging have any basis but I do know that, in the few days since the results, membership of the SNP has risen by about 70% and membership of the Scottish Greens (one of the other YES parties) has also risen dramatically.

  7. Untrou

    Interesting. So the towards and difference language adopted by the YES campaign may have actually contributed (among a host of other factors of course) to the defeat, by scaring off part of the electorate. Quite possible because Scotland, like most Northern Countries with a harsh climate, has a strong conservative risk-avoidance culture (sameness, away from – it has one of the biggest pension funds in the UK : Scottish Widows) and the NO campaign dramatically played to their fears, while the YES campaign’s insistence on promising change and using stirring difference language may have actually exarcerbated those fears – better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know perhaps? This is borne out by polls, since in Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll, a whopping 71% of young voters opted for independence, whereas 73% of over 65’s voted NO.
    The pro-independence movement led a very positive campaign, which was commendable, but in their enthusiasm, didn’t they forget the conservative mindset among a very large part of their electorate?

  8. Kate Atkin

    Hi Shelle

    I too have been fascinated by the campaign and really enjoyed reading your summary of the language used.

    Last week I was inspired to write my own blog post when as you mention, David Cameron and others from Westminster went to Scotland to make an “emotional appeal” to the Scots. Only it wasn’t an appeal to the Scots emotions, it turned out to be a statement of their own.

    Best wishes


  9. Noé P. Campos


    Even at distance (Brazil), I agree! What a world we’d have if most people were so civilized and respectful as Scottish!

    COngratulations for all of you in Commonwealth!


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