Stumbling start

When asked at FMQ about Boris Johnson’s apparent threat to strip the Scottish Parliament of its powers over NHS Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon responded thus

The way to ensure that we protect our health service – not to magic away all its problems and challenges, because health services everywhere have challenges – and invest in it, keep it in public hands and ensure that it remains the best-performing NHS anywhere in the UK, is to continue with the investment and reform that this government is taking forward.

Wrong answer, First Minister! The way to ensure that we protect our health service is by restoring Scotland’s independence. That is the only way to protect both our valued public services and our democratic institutions from the British Nationalist threat.

I am surely not the only person wondering why this wasn’t Nicola Sturgeon’s response. It is the obvious answer. It is the correct and truthful answer. So it is difficult to understand why the FM didn’t take this opportunity to deliver the election message she described in her address to the SNP Conference in Aberdeen less than three weeks ago.

A general election is imminent. And it cannot come soon enough. When it does our message will be clear, simple and unambiguous. Vote SNP to demand independence and secure Scotland’s right to choose.

What happened to that “clear, simple and unambiguous” message? The constitutional issue was supposed to be ‘at the very heart’ of this election campaign. It was supposed to be ‘front and centre’. The election campaign has barely started and already there are disturbing signs that the independence issue is being sidelined.

Yesterday, we discovered that John Nicolson, the SNP’s candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire, had published an election leaflet which contained not a single mention of independence. The leaflet (pictured above) lists five “SNP Priorities”. Independence doesn’t make the list.

On Twitter, John Nicolson seized on a suggestion that independence was implied by the last of the five “SNP Priorities” identified in the leaflet – “Fight for Scotland’s place in Europe – vital for jobs and investment”. Does that satisfy the criteria spelled out by Nicola Sturgeon? As a professional communicator, does John Nicolson seriously claim that this qualifies as a “clear, simple and unambiguous” message about independence?

I don’t know how they go about things in the SNP backrooms, but when I used to write copy for print and web the first part of the process always involved identifying the core message and the key words and phrases associated with that message. It is not at all clear what John Nicolson’s core message is – other than ‘Vote for me!’ – but the key terms he has selected include –

Boris Johnson
Universal Credit
Various terms associated with business, such as “producers” and “exporters”

‘Independence’ is not considered a key term. Whatever the core message is, it has nothing to do with independence. At best, there is a tangential connection with independence which the reader must work out for themselves. But they won’t!

The vast majority of election leaflets go straight from doormat to recycling bin. Of the remainder, only a few will be given a glance. A tiny proportion of the tens of thousands of leaflets delivered by the SNP’s formidable election machine will actually be read. It is essential, therefore, to do everything possible to grab the reader’s attention. It’s the glancers you’re targeting. You have one chance and perhaps a quarter of a second to convey something which will make them pause. Once you’ve done that, you have to lead them through different levels of information, starting with bullet points and working up to greater detail.

Do it well, and instead of 5% of your leaflets being even partially read, you might get up to 10%. More than that, and you’ve really cracked it.

I am not privy to what goes on in those back rooms at SNP HQ. But if I were asked to identify a core message for this election campaign it would be –

‘The Union is the problem! Independence is the solution! Vote SNP for independence! ‘

That is the starting point. Every candidate and everyone who works for the candidates and every campaigner on street or web should have that message seared into their brain. Everything they write or say in the course of the campaign should derive from and lead back to that message. Every word that goes out from the SNP, in print, pixel or audio, must be checked and double-checked to ensure that it is doing the work of conveying the core message.

Unity! Focus! Discipline! These are the vital attributes of an effective political campaign. To date, we’re seeing little evidence that the SNP has taken this on board. Some will plead that it is early days. That the campaign has barely begun. But it’s not as if this election has been sprung on us out of the blue. It has been expected for weeks, if not months. I would expect the party to hit the ground running. Instead, it has already stumbled badly.

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6 thoughts on “Stumbling start

  1. Thanks for this Peter! You keep saying that only the SNP can lead Scotland to independence, and that Scotland’s future lies in Nicola’s hands. I have, however, given up hope that the SNP will lead Scotland to independence. It has become a British party whose core concerns are British and saving Britain from Brexit. The leaders bang the independence drum, but are not marching to the beat. They accept the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament. As long as that doctrine is accepted and a S30 Order is pursued as the route to independence, it will not happen.

    Boris has clearly articulated his refusal to grant a S30, and also his plans for the SNHS. He calls himself a One Nation Conservative. If the Scots don;t act before Brexit happens, I think it will be too late.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I read this evening that if the Scottish Government do not get a S30 Order then they will pursue it through the courts. That does give me some hope for the SNP.


        1. Does it, aye. Have a wee think about how that might be expected to work out.

          “Having stated that the Section 30 process is the only ‘leg and constitutional’ way to go, Nicola Sturgeon has no viable alternative. Her only option is to try and force Boris Johnson to grant a Section 30 order by resorting to the courts.

          Taking the matter to court could be problematic, however, if there has been no formal rejection of the ‘demand’. The issue would still be pending. No action would have been taken by Boris Johnson against which the courts could rule. It might be that the Scottish Government could ask the court to order a formal response. At which point, Johnson need only issue a refusal. Which puts the Scottish Government back where they were – with no option other than to try to get the courts to reverse that refusal.

          Assuming the courts would even entertain such a request, Johnson need only revert to the plea that “Now is not the time!”. He would simply argue that the whole Brexit thing made it impossible to have an independence referendum at the moment. He would have a very strong case. Especially as the Scottish Government itself has helped make the case for him by insisting that Brexit was going to cause all manner of problems.

          The sensible money would be on Johnson winning. Or, at best, the courts falling back on some kind of fudge that kicked this particular can of constitutional hot potatoes down the road and into the long grass of painfully mixed metaphors.” =


  2. I, like you Peter was more than a little dissappointed when John Nicolson’s ‘flyer’ omitted any reference to Independence. Having given it some thought is it perhaps not the correct ‘tactical’ move? Unwritten yes, but everyone knows the SNP is driving Independence…..putting it front and centre on a flyer in a marginal seat in which he is trying to wrest from the Unionists, perhaps may scare them off a trifle much. Slowly, slowly…..


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