Getting people to vote for real change is harder than it looks ‑ as the debate in Scotland is showing

By Charles Pitt

Since Bill Clinton won the presidency it has been a rule of thumb that elections hang on three points of differentiation. The first is the choice between "change versus more of the same". The second: "It's the economy, stupid." The debate over Scotland's future is following this pattern. Last month the Chancellor, George Osborne, argued that changing the relationship between Scotland and the rest of UK is about money as well as sentiment. And it seems his message has had the desired effect - the first opinion polls since his intervention, out this week, show that opposition is hardening.

For the Nationalists this is genuinely problematic. On launching their White Paper on Scottish Independence Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, promised "real change"  and a new beginning for Scotland, while asserting that many of the big issues that concern voters would stay the same: same Queen, same Europe, same pound. The row over a currency union could prove decisive if it forces Salmond to concede that an independent Scotland really would mean current citizens of the UK north of the border becoming foreigners in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Nationalists cannot demand a sovereign Scottish state without acknowledging the true consequences of separation. 

Of course, most true supporters of an independent Scotland are relaxed about that consequence - for them independence is a higher order issue. But Salmond knows there are too few core nationalists to win in 2014. He wants his fellow Scots to make a leap across the ravine; and he promises a brighter future on the other side. His hardcore supporters will jump come what may. The majority, it seems, want to stay on the side they know. For the waiverers the ravine just widened and the view of the other side got blurrier. 

Persuading people of the case for change is not as easy as Bill Clinton made it look in 1992. In most cases the rhetoric of change is pretty empty - neither Clinton, nor Blair, nor Obama promised to change the fundamentals so  much as the tone of how they would govern. And if voters have doubts about their economic wellbeing they may well endure more of the same, even if they don’t much like it. 

Business leaders face many of the same challenges. Even in a commercial environment as hostile as the recent recession, effecting real change in some sectors has proved painfully slow. And seeing the improvement to reputation from structural and cultural change can take longer still. 

That doesn't mean that change is impossible, indeed in many cases it is an imperative. But it does mean that effective leaders have to work hard to bring people with them in a collaborative and reassuring way. As a leader you must set out the vision and make the case for the journey ahead.  Once you have led your team to the top of the mountain they will see the change of view for themselves; on the way up  you tell them to put one foot in front of the other just like they did the time before. 

Oh, and the third point for Bill Clinton's campaign was "Don’t forget healthcare". This is the polish that adds the sheen, the aftertaste that makes voters feel good about themselves. This you deploy once you know you are winning on the case for change and on the economy.

Salmond needs to tackle head-on the impact of independence on Scotland's economy. Only then can he move back into a debate about change versus more of the same.  Mr Salmond has a mountain to climb if he is to lead Scotland to independence - if he wants his people to follow him then he needs to persuade them of the case for real change. Unfortunately for his cause, it seems that the more real the change looks the less appeal it has. 

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