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.