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Probing the Scottish Don’t-knows

19 September 2014

There are many reasons for not voting, says Paul Vallely

AMID all the hoo-ha over the Scottish referendum, not many people seem to have given much thought to the "Don't-knows" who turned into the "Didn't-votes".

There is nothing new about not voting in British political life. In general and local elections, large numbers of people often don't bother. Politicians tend to talk disapprovingly about voter apathy, but it may be that they just do not want to hear what the non-voters are telling them. There is a widespread sympathy for the old anarcho-nihilist sentiment: "Don't vote, because, whomever you vote for, the Government gets in."

Of course, a referendum on independence is a different matter, which is why turnout was always predicted to be higher than in national and local-government elections. But, despite the constant "too close to call" polls, even up to the week of voting, there were a significant number of the electorate declaring themselves to be Don't-knows. Polls varied, some saying the Don't-knows were as few as four per cent, but others placing them as high as 20 per cent. Between 12 and 15 per cent was the consensus.

There is more than one kind of Don't-know. To borrow from the Donald Rumsfeld Book of Logic, there are Known-don't-knows and Unknown-don't-knows. That is, some of those in this category simply had not made up their minds until the last minute - or they had decided, but pretended they had not, for fear of emotional reprisals from friends and families. But others could not or would not make up their minds when the polls closed.

The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Revd John Chalmers, in a sermon on Sunday, cited the example of Elijah in the book of Kings, where he faces the people, and asks them to make up their minds about their faith.

The Moderator said that he personally found that making a choice was hard, "Because I'm one of those people who has spent a lifetime trying to see both sides of every argument, trying to work out complicated 'middle ways' that keep as many people as possible content. But I'm not going to get away with that this week. On this issue, like the people of Israel standing before Elijah, I need to come off the fence."

I am not sure that theology helped so much here, any more than other factors, such as the emotional pull of music - "Flower of Scotland" v. "Land of Hope and Glory" - or the endorsement of celebrities. There must have been as many people repelled as attracted by the tasteless comic Frankie Boyle or the anachronistic marchers of the Orange Lodge. The same was true of politicians, and the aggressive self-righteousness of Alex Salmond v. the impotent lacrimosity of David Cameron.

There were, of course, persuasive arguments on both sides - just as there were powerful repellents from those who implied that the other side were just a bit too dim to understand the facts. But, in the end, it may be that the Didn't-votes were not unable to weigh the advantage of one argument over another, but, rather, were paralysed by seeing the disadvantages of both. In that, they may have had the most potent message of all for the rest of us.

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