Know your enemy
Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.Sun Tzu – The Art of War
For the purposes of this article I’m going to suppose we had a Scottish Government that was both capable of ensuring a new constitutional referendum and willing to do so. Assuming that there will be a referendum on a timescale such as would not render planning for it pointless, we must give consideration to the nature of that campaign. We must obvious devise a strategy for the Yes campaign. But in doing so we also need to take heed of what kind of campaign our opponents are planning as well as the environment and context of the campaign as a whole.
The extract from Chinese general Sun Tzu’s ancient military treatise above is more commonly quoted in truncated form. We are frequently reminded that it is wise knowing one’s enemy. We are less frequently given the benefit of Sun Tzu’s advice also to know our own strengths and weaknesses. It is knowledge of your opponent’s disposition and plans which is decisive in batte. But being ignorant of one’s own resources and capacities can only contribute to defeat.
The nature of the referendum determines the form of the campaign. The most significant factor influencing campaign planning is the question being put to voters. This depends largely on whether or not it’s a real referendum. By which I mean does it satisfy the criteria to be considered a referendum. Neither the 2014 Scottish independence referendum nor the 2016 EU referendum satisfied those criteria. They were not real referendums. A real referendum produces not only a result but a decision. A real referendum is binary. It is a choice between two options each of which must be distinct, defined and deliverable. The outcome of a real referendum represents a decision to take or not take a particular course of action the precise details of which are known to voters from the outset.
If the outcome of a referendum leaves any room for dispute about the meaning of the result then that referendum was flawed. It did not satisfy the criteria. It was not binary. It was not a real referendum. The EU referendum is probably the one that comes first to mind in this regard. We all, I’m sure, recall the interminable arguments about how the result should be interpreted. To a degree, those arguments continue to this day. People are, I suspect, less likely to think of the 2014 referendum as being a deeply flawed exercise just as was the 2016 referendum. But it was.
If the 2014 referendum had been a real referendum there would have been absolutely no doubt about what was to happen afterwards. If Yes this! If No that! As it was, the implications of a No vote were never fixed. This meant, in effect, that the winners got to decide what people had voted for after the votes were counted. The winners have been interpreting and reinterpreting the No vote as expedient ever since. The British state was given complete licence to do to Scotland as it pleases by the No vote.
Would it have been any different had the result been Yes? Perhaps. The then Scottish Government at least had the outline of a plan. A Yes vote would have entailed a reasonably well-defined course of action. It would have been closer to a decision than the No vote was. But that’s not saying much.
The major problem with a win for Yes is not that the option had no definition but that it had too many. There were at least as many “visions” of independence as there were groups and organisations within the Yes movement. There was no way for voters to know which of these “visions” they were voting for. It was not a real referendum.
With this knowledge and experience it should be possible to do better next time. I have little confidence that any lessons have been learned, however. Nonetheless, I intend to proceed as if we’re discussing a real referendum. That is to say, a binary plebiscite in which the two options are distinct, defined and deliverable.
Distinct in the sense that the two options are completely different. They must not overlap to the extent that there is any possibility of confusing them or that the course of action to be triggered by the result is the same or markedly similar in both cases. A real referendum must be binary.
Defined in the sense that the option together with its related action are described in as much details as possible and that this definition does not change during or subsequent to the referendum process.
Deliverable in the sense that the option and associated course of action are feasible and not contingent on any further or additional votes. To illustrate the point, the 2014 referendum could not a ‘federal’ option because implementation would have been subject to a vote in the rest of the UK (rUK) as well as a British government willing to facilitate such a vote. Federalism was not deliverable.
Once you have two options which satisfy the criteria a question must be formulated which offers total clarity about the choice being made and which does not, intentionally or otherwise, act to lead voters to either option. Given the complexities of language and communication, this can be fraught with difficulty. It is essential to get this right. The 2014 referendum question was not right.
Should Scotland be an independent country?
There are two problems with this question. The lesser of these is that it tends to present independence as something novel and unfamiliar. But by far the greater problem is that it makes independence the contentious issue. It makes independence the thing that must be argued for. It makes the Union the default when it is the Union which is anomalous. Independence is the default status of nations. That Scotland should be an independent country should therefore be assumed. There is no justification for making the question about independence. The Union should have been the contentious issue.
We know for a fact that this lesson has not been learned because the present Scottish Government is insisting that the same question be used.
This matters because the question shapes the entire campaign. Basically, the Yes campaign was obliged to sell independence in a difficult market whereas the No campaign need only play on reluctance to purchase by creating and exaggerating doubt. It is much easier to stop the electorate buying something involving significant change than it is to persuade them to buy something that will supposedly change their lives.
I say “electorate” advisedly and in anticipation of some readers thinking that in their experience people are quite likely to buy something that will supposedly change their lives. They do it all the time. If they can’t afford to do it they dream of doing it. That’s what makes advertising work.
I hear those same readers jumping in at this point to remind me how successful the Yes campaign was. It took support for independence from less than 30% to 45%. But in planning a new campaign we should not be thinking only in terms of what the Yes campaign achieved but in terms of what it might have achieved had things been done differently.
To illustrate this point I’ll use my own ‘campaign’ to have a new referendum in September 2018. The invariable response when I bring that up now is that we wouldn’t have won in 2018. The polls from back then tell us that Yes would not have won. But there was no 2018 referendum. Therefore we had no campaign. What these people are saying, in effect, is that we wouldn’t have won if we hadn’t tried to win. They should be thinking in terms of where the polls might have been had the referendum been called and had there been a referendum campaign.
Similarly, when looking back at the 2014 campaign we should be attending not only to the things we did right but to the things we might have done better and the things we might have done but didn’t. The question is not how would a campaign for a new referendum fare if it was the same as in the 2014 referendum but how it might fare if we did it differently. If you are saying the 2014 campaign won 15-20 percentage points therefore it must have been right and if it was right then we just need to do the same but work harder at it then you are getting it wrong. For a range of reasons, you’re getting it wrong.
Probably the main reason it’s wrong to suppose the same campaign strategy might be effective is that the new campaign will be addressing an entirely different market. And I don’t mean only that circumstances have changed. They undoubtedly have and due account should be taken of this. The world of 2021 is massively different from the world as it was ten years ago when we first knew that there would be a referendum. As far as Scotland is concerned, the 2014 referendum itself brought about significant change. As stated earlier, the No vote effectively gave the British political elite permission to do what they wish with and to Scotland. It didn’t take long before we discovered what this meant.
But the market is different in another way which has to be considered. These are the people the old campaign didn’t work on. It is vital that a new campaign strategy takes account of this. It is essential that we understand the reasons these people weren’t hooked by the ‘positive’ message of the first referendum campaign in order that we might devise messaging which will hook them.
Remaining with the marketing analogy – which is appropriate because a political campaign is really just a marketing exercise. Electoral politics is a contest of ideas. Or at least it should be. It should be a market in which voter chose which ideas to buy and which to leave on the shelf. All the people who could be sold independence by the 2014 campaign have already bought it. They were the 45%. They bought it and almost all of them have kept it. The 55% is the section of the market that chose to leave Yes on the shelf. The Yes marketing exercise was not effective in selling independence to that 55% then, why suppose it will now?
The 45% is now hovering just above 50%. Proponents of the 2014 campaign strategy point to this and attribute the additional 5 or 6 or 7 points to that strategy. Well they would, wouldn’t they? In fact, there is little or no reason to suppose support for independence has increased due entirely or even principally to the Yes marketing campaign. For a start, there has been no campaign. Or nothing recognisable as such. A few reps have been selling as best they can and there’s been a few posters put up; but no concerted campaign.
Other factors account for the improved polling. Demographic, for one. The old who were never going to buy have died and been replaced by young people who are statistically more likely to buy independence. External factors such an appalling British government and Brexit all played a part. The point is that the ~50% who are still No represent a market which is decidedly different from that which has bought Yes either because of the marketing or other factors. A different market suggests a different marketing strategy. We have to understand that market. Understanding the market is just another facet of knowing your enemy.
Understanding how the framing of the referendum affects the framing of the campaign is also a facet of knowing your enemy. Because that framing applies to them too.
The way the 2014 referendum was framed suited the No campaign. Understanding why it suited them and how they used that advantage is crucial to knowing the enemy. A truly useful analysis of the 2014 campaign looks at all of that campaign. Both sides. There is at least as much that can inform a new Yes campaign in what Better Together did as in what Yes Scotland and the Yes movement did. Better Together probably has more to teach us. After all, they won!
Finally, a point which may be somewhat controversial. Even more controversial than the suggestion that we can learn from Project Fear. (Or Project Doubt as it should more accurately be called. But that’s for the next essay.)
When we seek to know our enemy we must accept that this includes the enemy within. The enemy in our own ranks. Not necessarily people with malicious intent. Although there may well be a few saboteurs and spies, I’m really referring to those who do unintentional harm. It is as important to understand this unwitting enemy behind us as it is to understand the one facing us. It’s all part of knowing your enemy. And knowing yourself.
This is the first part of an occasional series looking at formulating a strategy for a new Yes campaign. The name Yes NOW! and associated graphics are intended for purposes of illustration only.