I was down in border country over the weekend, attending #AUOBGalashiels and enjoying some local hospitality. So, I have spent the last 24 hours catching up on three days worth of news, columns and blogs. I quite enjoy this binge-reading. Although it must be said that such a rush of information, analysis and opinion can leave you reeling. There’s a lot of thinking going on in Scotland at the moment. And a lot of writing. Sometimes, the two are connected.
The first thing to catch my eye was the headline emblazoned across the front page of the Sunday National – HOW WE’LL WIN INDEPENDENCE. Naturally, I felt obliged to read the article by Blair Jenkins as this happens to be the very issue that I have been preoccupied with for as long as I can remember. What made it all the more intriguing was mention of “the lessons of 2014”. If the question of how we’ll win the coming referendum campaign has been my preoccupation, the lessons of the previous one might be said to be my ‘specialist subject’.
Of course, we’ve never been short of advice on how we’ll win. The only thing we’ve had more of is warnings about what will surely cause us to lose. One of the more irritating features of the 2014 campaign was the small but vociferous clique of commentators taking it in turns to tell us that, whatever we were doing, we were doing it wrongly. Almost daily we were lectured in the pompously patient tones of the put-upon teacher, about how Yes activists were talking to the wrong people about the wrong things at the wrong times in the wrong places and in the wrong manner.
The great irony being that all of this was invariably a preamble to yet another plea that the Yes campaign should be impeccably positive.
Running a close second in the major irritant stakes were those who insisted that victory was entirely a matter of the Yes campaign addressing a particular group of voters. Depending on which of these sages one attended to, the key to winning independence is persuading either pensioners, youth, business, workers, the poor, the affluent, the people who hate Alex Salmond, Tory voters, the people who hate Nicola Sturgeon, Labour voters or any of myriad other categories. The only thing that pretty much all of these had in common was the utter conviction that the secret was a soft-focus positive vision and/or a hard-headed positive economic case.
With all that expert guidance serving the Yes campaign, it’s a wonder we managed to lose.
When I saw the front page on the Sunday National it occurred to me that we were probably in for a fresh spate of advice on how the new referendum campaign should be fought. And what is to be avoided. Some of this advice will be naive and simplistic. Some of the warnings will be pompous and portentous. Almost all of it will be will be wrong in one way or another and to a greater or a lesser extent.
The advice that will tend to be right is that which is genuinely based on lessons learned from thorough analysis of the 2014 campaign. The warnings that will be most worth heeding are those which steer us away from repeating mistakes made during the 2014 campaign.
So, I was very interested to read what Blair Jenkins had to say. As head of Yes Scotland he is, after all, the person who takes credit for much of what was done well. And the individual who carries the blame for what was done badly. It turned out to be a rather mixed bag. Reading the article, I rode a roller-coaster racing from peaks of cheering concurrence to troughs of growling disagreement.
Agree! The campaign needs to be “disciplined and determined”. Perhaps most of all the first of these.
Disagree! Don’t tell me there’s “no point in people getting angry or anxious about the timing”. Delay is NOT a consequence-free option. There are real and serious risks involved in putting off the referendum until after 31 October 2019. Don’t ever tell me to be complacent in the face of the rolling juggernaut of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism that is already snapping at the heels of Scotland’s democracy.
In one sentence Blair Jenkins says that Brexit is making people “rethink their assumptions about Scottish independence”. Which I find to be a plausible assumption, but not one on which I would want to place great emphasis in considering campaign tactics. People have had ample opportunity, and been given ample cause, to “rethink” assumptions about independence based on the now proven lies told by the anti-independence campaign in the 2014 referendum. But there has been no significant impact on the polls, as might reasonably have been been expected if there was potential here to find the numbers the Yes campaign requires.
In the very next sentence, Blair refers to people “having a second look at their previous support for the Union”. Which I find to be a much more promising basis for a campaign strategy. To put it simply, seeking to get people to change their view of independence has been tried. Arguably, it is this that has brought support for independence to circa 50%. Where it has remained stuck since 2014. Nothing like the same effort has been put into inducing people to take a second look at their support for the Union. It stands to reason, therefore, that this should become a principal focus of the Yes campaign.
It is among those who are now ready to question the efficacy of the Union that the Yes campaign will find the larger part of the numbers required for victory,
What is more than a little disturbing is that Blair Jenkins fails to adequately distinguish between the processes of rethinking assumptions about independence and re-examining support for the Union. This despite the fact that each suggests a very different type of campaign.
It is also slightly troubling that Blair attributes this readiness to question the Union mainly to “people who usually vote Labour“. This seems to suppose that there are two kinds of British Nationalism – that embraced by British Labour and that embraced by their Tory counterparts. I find no evidence for this. Indeed, it is the fact that all the British parties hold the same ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism in common that has facilitated the alliance which was formalised in Better Together / Project Fear. Although it should be noted that the British parties have always been allied in their defence of the Union. Their shared British Nationalist ideology has always been there. It has only lately become more open and extreme.
What this suggests is that any campaign tactics designed to encourage “people who usually vote Labour” to question their loyalty to the Union would be likely to have a very similar effect on others who have been given the same reasons to do so. A carefully crafted campaign against the Union could potentially garner Yes votes from across the political spectrum.
The following is possibly the most telling passage in the article.
It’s important we don’t push away the people who are moving towards us. In my view, there are not many more converts to the Yes cause left to be won among folks who wake up one morning and suddenly discover that they are more Scottish than they had previously realised.
Our scope for growth in support is largely among those who have been reluctant to give up on the UK, but are now concluding that their own values and priorities are much more likely to be delivered in an independent Scotland within the EU.
My only problem with this is that it does not state the case strongly enough for an all-out anti-Union campaign. There is a powerful sense that this is where Blair’s thinking is tending. But he remains so firmly wedded to the notion of ‘positive campaigning’ that he can’t quite manage to admit that what was missing from the 2014 Yes campaign was the element of negative campaigning. Still he is plagued by this fear that Scottish voters are like timid forest creatures, poised to take flight at the sound of a moderately harsh word.
Of course we don’t want to “push away” anybody. But the Yes campaign needs to urgently address unrealistic notions of what it actually takes to do this. We are talking about ordinary adult voters. The people we seek to win over to independence – or prise away from loyalty to the Union – are not a particular stock bred for their timorousness. We insult them by treating them like sickly children rather than mature individuals well able to withstand a bit of rough wooing if that’s what it takes. For the most part, they know how important the constitutional issue is. They are not about to make decisions on the basis of who peppers their Tweets with expletives any more than on the basis of who is the most photogenic.
Blair Jenkins goes on to point out that questioning the mandate for a new referendum “is not just undemocratic, it’s ludicrous and an insult to people’s intelligence”. Who but the most anti-democratic British Nationalist bigot could disagree with that. But, again, it is a matter of language and emphasis. To deny the mandate is to hold the Scottish Parliament in contempt. That is not merely “undemocratic”, it is anti-democratic. It doesn’t just fall short of being democratic. It stands in opposition to fundamental democratic principles. It doesn’t only “insult people’s intelligence”, it is an affront to democracy.
Then there is talk of the “basic journalistic diligence” of challenging this “mandate denial”. Which Blair seems to suppose might happen if we “insist that television and radio interviewers push Ruth Davidson and others much harder on this point”. In yer dreams, Blair! Either this isn’t going to happen or we cannot rely on it happening. Which amount to much the same thing. One of the most important lessons of the 2014 referendum campaign and every day since is that the British media is the voice of the British establishment and there is absolutely nothing that is going to change that.
Any Yes campaign which proceeds on the assumption that fair treatment from the British media is a possibility is a campaign that is almost certainly doomed to fail. We should no more expect the British media to honestly present the Yes case than we would the British political parties or any other part of the British establishment. We must give up on the mainstream media in order to focus on developing our own channels of communication with voters.
Certainly, we should expose their lies and correct their distortions and debunk their scare stories and rebut their fallacious arguments. But we must never imagine that the British media has the slightest interest in serving democracy by helping voters to make informed decisions.
There is more in the same vein. Things that I can agree with, wholly or in part. Things I tend to disagree with. But the overall impression is that lessons of the 2014 campaign have not been fully learned. And some have been missed completely. Other than the rather tentative acknowledgement that there is potential in campaigning against the Union, I didn’t find Blair Jenkins lighting any fires.
If you find these articles interesting please consider a small donation to help support this site and my other activities on behalf of Scotland’s independence movement.