If the provisions of the Referendums Bill allowing the re-use of a previously used question hint at the Scottish Government’s intention to frame the ballot exactly as for the 2014 referendum then this would be regrettable. I realise that having the ability to use the same question doesn’t necessarily imply that this is what Nicola Sturgeon has in mind. But, taking this together with various other statements, the indications are that the idea is to run exactly the same campaign again.
This would be a tragic mistake. So much has changed in the last few years that the context of a new independence referendum campaign must be significantly different. And simply dusting-off the old campaign strategy – if, indeed, that is what is intended – suggests a woeful failure to learn lessons from the 2014 campaign.
I know that Keith Brown has forged a close working relationship with the Yes movement. Assuming he also speaks to Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell, t is difficult to suppose that they are unaware of the importance attached to reframing the constitutional debate. Individuals such as Bill Dale and organisation such as Business for Scotland have worked long and hard with Yes groups all over Scotland to develop the necessary skills. When I talk with activists, the subject of reframing always features prominently in the discussion. Reframing is regarded as crucial.
There is little to indicate that any of this has influenced the thinking of the senior figures in the SNP who are laying plans for a new referendum campaign. This is not merely disappointing, it is downright disturbing.
All the talk we hear from the SNP is of ‘taking the positive message of independence to the people’. Other than the constant linking of the independence issue to Brexit – which may, itself, prove to be an unwise move – the rhetoric is all but indistinguishable from what we heard in 2012/13. The same notion that methods deployed with great success by the SNP in elections can simply be transferred to a referendum. The same obsession with an exclusively ‘positive’ campaign. The same focus on an ‘economic case’ to the exclusion of the constitutional arguments. The same mindset of playing by the British state’s rules.
The term ‘mindset’ is not mere jargon. Just as reframing is essential to an effective campaign, so mindset is fundamental to reframing. If we are to have any hope of even addressing the key demographic, far less changing the way people see the constitutional issue, then we have to be able to shift our own perceptions of that issue. At the most basic level, we have to move away from the idea of independence as something we have to ask for or qualify for or ‘win’, and start thinking of independence as something to be taken. Something that is ours by right, but that illegitimately withheld from us.
Obviously, there is a lot more to the art and science of reframing. But this is the starting point. And until I see some sign that our political leaders have realised it, I will continue to worry.
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