Scottish Referendum: Politics, Emotion and Visual Communication

By 1st October 2014 May 17th, 2016 View

I call Scotland my second home. I spent the past 5 years living there, so the past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride. I wasn’t able to vote in the Independence Referendum on 18 September 2014 as I had moved back to Turkey half a year ago, but I’ve been following the debate very closely for the past couple of years.

This modern instance of the independence question has been an ongoing process for centuries. It’s a complicated beast. While being a direct continuation of the devolution referendums of 1979 and 1999, it also extends back to the 3rd Century when the Romans were pushed out of Caledonia, and then to the 14th Century, to William Wallace and the Wars of Scottish Independence. It then reaches over to the Acts of Union of 1707, the formation of the United Kingdom, as it is known today.

There are social, economical, historical, cultural and emotional aspects to it that span (and re-span) centuries.

Looking at it from a Turkish perspective, I can say it’s been an especially challenging one for us Turks. I’ll put this into context: We’ve always been confused about what the “United Kingdom” actually is. The concept of “Great Britain” is an even greater mystery. We refer to the whole of the United Kingdom as “İngiltere” (England), anyone from there is “İngiliz” (English), and, no, it doesn’t even occur to us how offensive that can come across. So grasping how Scotland fits into the UK, what its relationship to Great Britain is, and what the referendum means in all this has been a challenge to say the least.

What we really understand, though, is that this matter has been about heart as much as it’s been about head. This is politics entwined with emotion, and it’s the kind of politics that really resonates with us Turks – we are subjected to it day in and day out. I find this fascinating and would like to have a look at the Independence Referendum from this angle.

Apart from being a Turk, I’m also a graphic designer working in branding. At Istanbul-based branding consultancy BrandSeers, we strongly believe that strategy goes hand in hand with design. It is with this perspective I will also analyse the campaign communication strategies representing the Yes and No sides and how their strategies feed into (both ‘on purpose’ and unintentionally) their respective visual communication languages.

Let’s start by taking a step back and look at first proposal of the wording of the question that would appear on the ballot paper: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yes/No” This was deemed too biased. The Electoral Commission warned that “Do you agree…?” could easily nudge people towards a positive answer.

The fact that the question didn’t specifically say Scotland would remain a part of the UK if it didn’t become independent was an issue as well. It was debated whether people would be encouraged to vote ‘yes’ because there was no mention of the “status quo”. In the end, the Electoral Commission concluded that people weren’t that dim and would successfully grasp what was going on.

In January 2013, the final form of the question was decided: “Should Scotland be an independent Country? Yes/No”

It is an easily understandable question with two possible answers. Clear and simple. However, the inherent negative and positive meanings of Yes and No did, in my opinion, have a massive impact on the campaigns.


Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and the head of the SNP, launched the Yes Scotland campaign with a positive, inclusive and hopeful speech in May 2012.

The Yes Scotland campaign has been enthusiastic right from the beginning (even with a 2011 poll showing that only 39% of Scots wanted independence then) until the very day of the vote.

They worked to associate themselves with a more positive, hopeful interpretation of Scottish identity. Choosing to focus more on the emotional side of the issue, the Yes Scotland campaign championed pride, strength, and creativity in their messages. They adopted an optimistic tone throughout their communications, making sure to feature children, families, happiness, and lots of light.

Describing themselves as a “community-based” movement, they succeeded in making the campaign bigger than the SNP and reached out and embraced the voters of the other major Scottish parties – Labour, Greens, and Liberal Democrats. The SNP were clever in this sense and were very quick to realise they didn’t stand a chance of achieving success without support from the voters of other parties.

The Yes side was also successful in extending their message into the creative and cultural scene. The National Collective was set up in 2011 as a cultural movement featuring artists, writers and activists making a positive case for independence. They weren’t set up by the Yes Scotland Campaign, but considered themselves “part of the wider Yes movement”, in founder Ross Colquhoun’s words.

In July 2014, the National Collective organised Yestival, a travelling arts festival showcasing “the grassroots cultural movement for Scottish Independence”. They travelled all over Scotland over the course of the month and organised events that were structured as “small gatherings, pop-up and larger events spanning theatre, music, art, and film”. They also invited people to organise their own creative events and take part in the “Summer of Independence”. They were embracing and extremely active on social media, over Twitter and Facebook in particular.


When we do a quick Google image search and have a look at the images associated with Yestival, we see lots of colour, groups of happy people, artists, musicians and young folk. Everyone looks optimistic. The Yestival materials themselves carry this optimistic tone. They have a colourful and hand-made quality, a certain warmth and tactility that really signifies a ‘grassroots cultural movement’. When I look at the images, I can’t help but be reminded of some of the images that came out of Gezi in 2013. I don’t mean the gassed-out pictures of carnage, but the ones that summarised the sense of community and sharing, the collective humour and the in-spite-of-it-all optimism that had erupted amongst the gas canisters.

As for the designed communications materials of the Yes Scotland campaign itself, first of all, we can see that they took ownership of the national colours of Scotland right from the beginning, before the other side had a chance to put their trousers on: the blue and white of the Saltire of Scotland. ‘Yes’ is set in Helvetica Bold in white and on a blue circle. This symbol is used as the basic identity of the campaign. They’ve kept it extremely, even aggressively, visible. It featured on flyers, posters, Yes stickers and badges, Facebook profile pictures, and t-shirts. These communications materials were E.V.E.R.Y.W.H.E.R.E.


Helvetica itself is an interesting choice. It’s a sturdy-looking typeface with hard edges. It signifies firmness and confidence, and carries heavy corporate connotations. That doesn’t seem like a suitable choice of messaging for a campaign built on emotion, but then it can also be argued that it’s been used because people recognise it. Because it’s such a default choice in design now, everyone knows Helvetica. It could be argued that this adds a non-designed, sincere feel. It is “of the people”.


The No campaign was launched in June 2012 as “Better Together” by Alistair Darling, the head of the Scottish Labour Party, with a, frankly, uninspired and ever so slightly apocalyptic speech.

The Better Together campaign spent most of the past two years highlighting the economic and social risks of independence in a pretty negative, boring, underwhelming and patronising manner.

In all fairness, they were at a slight disadvantage having to make a case for No, the negative option out of the two possible responses to the question on the ballot paper. Though, the dynamics between Labour and the Conservatives down in Westminster had a lot to do with Better Together’s lack of enthusiasm too. Labour’s whole rhetoric of the past 4 years has been about attacking the Conservatives on the NHS and the state of the economy, which were both key issues in the Scottish Referendum. Better Together was specifically run by Labour activists and politicians, because almost all Scotland MPs in Westminster are Labour. They couldn’t imply that they were agreeing with the Conservatives while arguing the case for No. They could only show limited enthusiasm about the state of the UK economy and the running of the NHS. Hence the general grumpiness.

What all this caused was a visible lack of cohesion in the campaign right from the beginning. I’ll try to break this down:

They started off as just “Better Together”. The colour blue was adopted, but they failed to establish that the blue represented Scotland. Instead, it feels more like a generic blue that signifies corporate calmness, like a bank. As in, the Royal Bank of Scotland, which really isn’t a helpful association as the RBS had a massive part to play in the UK’s 2008 financial meltdown.


It might have been an option to go with a solution that combined red, white and blue, but it’s understandable why they didn’t. It would have been a punchier solution, but it would have pointed towards a “status quo” meaning.

In June 2014, Better Together adopted “No Thanks” as a slogan. According to Iain Watson, BBC political correspondent, Better Together was meant to sound positive, but lacked meaning for voters. No had to be deployed, but was then softened to “No Thanks”.

Looking at the No Thanks slogan badge, we can see they aligned themselves with theYes Scotland approach: simple design; slogan centred on a circle. No Thanks is set in a typeface with soft contours. They’ve also integrated a hand-drawn, friendly cross in the O that simultaneously mimics the St Andrew’s cross as well as a cross on a ballot paper.

The dark RBS blue remains the main campaign colour, but we can also see that they introduced a British red (used only on its own) and the purple of Scotland’s national flower, the thistle.



Better Together stepped up their game in making themselves more visible towards the end of the campaigning period, but overall they failed to be as active and visual as Yes Scotland.

They also failed to connect with people outside the realm of politics. They kept their messages firmly within the boundaries of governing and economics and showed almost no interest in connecting with grassroots cultural movements.

They were also unsuccessful in getting the rest of the UK interested in the momentousness of the issue, that this vote would either break up or conserve the Union. This was possibly because people (including Westminster) assumed No would win anyway and weren’t paying attention until a poll published just 12 days before the referendum put Yes slightly in lead (Only then the urgency of the situation became apparent. Westminster politicians scrambled over themselves to save the day and descended upon Scotland. The leaders of the Conservative Party, Labour and the Liberal Democrats found themselves making promises for more devolution to Scotland in case of a No vote.

Around this time, historians Tom Holland and Dan Snow formulated an attempt at a solidarity movement. Calling it “Let’s Stay Together”, they wrote a “giant love letter” to Scotland urging them to vote no. Celebrities put their names under it and it instantly appeared all over the media.


I’m not sure how young, mostly working-class Scots wanting to take the fate of their of country into their own hands were impressed with names such as Dame Judi Dench, Tracey Emin, Stephen Hawking, Anish Kapoor, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Sir David Attenborough and the like. They’re all valuable British public figures: artists, actors and actresses, scientists, writers, historians and presenters. Most, if not all, are loved and respected by the entire nation, but they are a bit too big, too established, too successful and too rich. There are a lot of Sirs and Dames on that list, it’s very easy to draw the conclusion that it’s only natural they would be vouching for the unity of the Kingdom.

Tom Holland and Dan Snow then organised a “Unity Rally 2014” in Trafalgar Square, London a few days before 18th September. They were inspired by the Unity Rally of Montreal in 1995, where a hundred thousand Canadians gathered to plead to Quebecers not to vote yes in the Quebec independence referendum. Unity Rally 2014 was inspiring, and clearly organised with good intentions, but it was late enough to be seen as an afterthought to say the least. That’s not a positive message to be giving.


No did win in the end, but it’s difficult to say whether it was because Better Together stepped up their game towards the end, or because of the last-minute devolution promises of the Labour, Tory and LibDem leaders OR if it was because the majority would have voted No all along.

Yes Scotland was easily the more active, and in that sense, the more successful campaign out of the two. Click to read an Analysis of social media use by both sides.

However, Alex Salmond and the SNP had a suspiciously difficult time in providing clear, definitive answers to some of the key issues an independent Scotland would face, such as currency, the economy, jobs and prices and EU membership, issues that were seen as highly important by the older, more middle-class residents of Scotland, who made up the majority of No voters. It all came down to that in the end.

So, what does this all mean?

The bottom line is, the majority voted for No, but the minority isn’t minor at all –it’s just a little less than half the total number. We can see how significant this result is if we look at the “total” numbers themselves: 86% of the electorate turned up to vote while 97% had registered to do so. That’s pretty much everyone except the under-16s and prisoners. This is a near-ideal model of democracy in action. It is to be applauded for that alone (and a massive lesson for Turkey), but the results clearly show that Scotland is now divided straight down the middle. That’s not healthy. Clearly, half the population is unhappy with the way the UK is run and Scotland’s place within the political theatrics that take place.

Sadly, resentment between the Yes and No sides has started to make an appearance. I have friends saying they now have “voter’s guilt” and are made to feel like they should be “ashamed for killing Scotland’s dream of independence.” There are even stories of people looking for jobs elsewhere because the majority of their existing work environments are made up of colleagues who have voted against “their side”.

Extreme? Possibly. But we’re human and can’t help it. This is the one side of this whole journey that really resonates with us Turks. We’ve been subjected to the political rhetoric of “my” 50% and “your” 50% for the better part of a decade now. As a society we’ve come to a point where we now stand on opposite sides of a massive rift that grows larger with every election we vote in. We can no longer hear, let alone listen to each other. Meanwhile, our politicians continue to make the most out of the situation, even when they pretend they’re trying to fix it. It would be a shame to see this happen in Scotland.

Though, I am hopeful that the people of Scotland will emerge as the winner in the end. It’s difficult to say if there will be another referendum and chance for Scottish independence in the near future or if the UK Government will actually manage to get their act together and start fixing things. (It’s too early to say anything, but with the way Westminster’s been dealing with their last-minute devolution promises so far, it’s not looking optimistic.)

There have been initiations of post-referendum movements to keep the debate and push going. A prominent example is the Facebook community “We Are the 45%”, which has gathered 175,500 likes within the space of about two weeks. The debate over social media is taking place under the hashtags #the45 and #the55. It is at times divisive, at times unifying, but a healthy debate nevertheless. There are also a significant number of people trying to bring attention to the importance of the 86% turnout, the fact that a record-breaking proportion of the electorate turned up to vote. Pushing for positive change is the responsibility of the people and it can only be achieved if people work together. GreatScots is another great example to this.

As long as cultural movements like the National Collective, Yestival and the intentions and spirit behindLet’s Stay Together take centre stage, as long as they don’t succumb to politics, it’s clear that the debate will go on regardless of polished campaigns new and old. Only then will politicians find it difficult to dilute election-making issues into petty bickering to steer them in the most politically beneficial direction for them. If there is one lesson we, the citizens of the Republic of Turkey, could learn from Scotland’s referendum journey, it’s this. Plain and simple.



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