Gerry Hassan’s list – 1 to 5

It is perhaps a sign of the general weariness which has beset Scotland’s constitutional debate that a man of Gerry Hassan’s great erudition can come up with a list of only 10 things to think about before our next indyref. Back in the day, a list from such a source could be expected to run to thirty or forty or more items. Gerry himself would certainly be up to the task of populating a 3-figure list. Although in the months prior to the 2014 referendum it would most likely be a catalogue of the things everybody in the Yes campaign was doing wrong. Choosing to regard the paucity of today’s list as a blessing, I ventured in.

(As I run through the list people of a certain age may hear in their mind’s ear the voice of deceased radio DJ Alan Freeman. Please do not be concerned. This is perfectly normal.)

1) Independence and an indyref need to be differentiated.

Well, of course they do! Does anybody really get them confused? What is interesting here is the acknowledgement that we have two fights on our hands – the fight to have a referendum and the fight to win that referendum and thus restore Scotland’s independence. In fact, I’d say there are three fights. In addition to those already mentioned there is the battle to ensure that we get the right kind of referendum done in the right way.

Under this item there is also what appears to be an acknowledgement that independence is an end in itself. Which is welcome. Less welcome is the notion that independence “can be worked towards in numerous ways”. This suggests a gradualism which the reality of Scotland’s predicament prohibits. We’ve done the “good politics, policies, governance”. It only helped up to a point. It stopped aiding the ‘case for independence’ when people started taking the good politics etc. for granted. Or when the policies became less popular and the governance less competent, as some would have it.

Gerry Hassan also cites “the increasing self-government and autonomy of Scotland” as a means of working towards independence. Can it really be that he has failed to notice precisely the opposite happening here in the real world? The powers and the authority of the Scottish Parliament are under attack as never before. Besides which the idea of devolution eventually and almost automatically leading to independence was always a fallacy. Devolution and independence are two quite different things. Having a devolved parliament no doubt makes the switch to independence easier. But it is still a switch. Independence is not an inevitable product of devolution. Not even when devolution is increasing. Devolution is a device by which independence can be fended off. Scotland’s cause is as much about ending devolution as it is about ending the Union.

2) Independence cannot be solely focused on process to the marginalisation of substance.

I would put it a bit differently. I would say we shouldn’t have to focus so much on process. We shouldn’t feel obliged to devote so much attention to questions of “who can call and not call an indyref and what happens if Westminster blocks a vote”. We should be able to take it for granted that the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government will follow the appropriate process. We should be able to assume at least that they are cognisant of what an appropriate process looks like. But we cannot!

If there is excessive focus on process it is in relation to the setting of a date for a new referendum. Naming the day would, of course, give Scotland’s cause a much-needed boost. It might even serve to heal some of the divisions now afflicting the Yes movement. Or at least incentivise people to stick a plaster on the wounds for a while. But it is not the only way to achieve this. The obsession with setting a date stems from the idea that the referendum starts the process leading to the restoration of our independence. It could. But it needn’t. It really shouldn’t be thought of in this way.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that the Sturgeon doctrine commits to a process which is not appropriate in terms of the exercise of our right of self-determination. We worry that the process Nicola Sturgeon intends to follow (is following?) will fail. allowing the British state – in this context if no other a ‘foreign power’ direct involvement in the exercise of our right of self-determination is dangerous folly. The very best that we can hope for from the Section 30 process is a referendum which produces an unsatisfactory outcome. Not in the sense of the wrong choice being made but in the sense of an outcome which does not satisfy. And outcome which is a result but not a decision. There must be absolutely no doubt about what the outcome implies and entails.

There is a psychological aspect to this. It is not just important that Scotland’s independence be restored. In must be done in a way that inspires and expresses confidence. There must on no account be any sense of independence having been given. It is vital for the the long-term psychological well-being of the nation that restoring Scotland’s independence is unmistakably something that is done by the people of Scotland.

We have to focus on process because process is far more important than Gerry Hassan allows. And because there is a very serious risk that the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government is getting the process very badly wrong.

3) Timescales are critical.

Indeed they are. But so is flexibility. The ability to respond to changing circumstances. Keep one’s is good politicking. Rigid timescales are shackles restricting movement. To go back to process for a moment it’s worth noting at this juncture that the more people have confidence in the process the less important timescales become. When people are persuaded that one thing will unalterably lead to another it becomes less important for them to know when. That’s another reason for making sure you get the process right. The right process will tend to inspire confidence and reduce the need for timescales.

The converse of this is that the insistence on timescales will tend to be more intense where confidence in the process is lacking. If people are very forcefully demanding timescales then this may be a sign that the process is flawed.

Gerry Hassan writes,

Any successful politics needs to have an awareness of different time horizons – short, medium and long-term. Continually calling for immediate action and a referendum under Covid does none of this.

Calling for immediate action is a symptom of low confidence in the process. And we should beware of the facile assumption that Covid poses particular and insurmountable problems for a referendum. It doesn’t. The fact that it is being used to justify inaction. The Covid caveat merely adds to the uncertainty and apprehension about process caused by the vagueness about timing to which Gerry refers to along with the ambivalence of a “gradualist approach which is always implicit never explicit”.

He also characterises the counter to Sturgeon’s vagueness and ambivalence as “calling for an instant vote”; which he attributes to Alex Salmond. This is a straw man which rather exposes Gerry Hassan’s prejudice. Nobody is “calling for an instant vote”. Or at least nobody with any kind of credibility. Dissent from the hesitancy and procrastination inherent in the Sturgeon doctrine does not mean going to other other extreme. It means calling for action that will allow confidence in the process. Not necessarily building a timescale cage around oneself. Initiating or even just defining a process in which one thing leads to another in a clear and comprehensible chain of actions will do the job.

4) Independence supporters need to base their politics not on the passions of the most fervent Yes believers.

This is just wrong. Scotland’s cause needs more passion, not less. I fully recognise that “most of Scotland does not live and breath politics, let alone independence”. But the whole point of campaigning is to alter that. We will hardly do that by pandering to the least interested and least passionate among us. Gerry Hassan seems to imagine the way to inspire people is to match their lack of inspiration. That’s like trying encourage someone to eat by offering the blandest and most insipid gruel.

There is a school of what might generously be called ‘thought’ which stridently insists that a political campaign must be conducted with cold rationality. Only the ‘facts’ will do. Give people the relevant data and do so as dispassionately as possible. No hint of fervour must be permitted lest one leave oneself open to accusations of resorting to an appeal to emotion. From where it is but an idiot’s leap to ‘blood and soil nationalism’. The trouble with this theory is that people don’t vote on the basis of what they know or think they know. Ultimately, they vote according to what they feel. Facts and figures may be used to influence how people feel about an issue. But they are of limited utility. And no utility whatsoever if they are not presented in a manner which first gets the attention of those further down the scale of interest and engagement , and then makes them feel something about the issue. The thing that seizes their attention and the thing that makes them feel something are almost certainly one and the same.

We won’t get the attention of those who are disengaged but engageable by employing the voice we might use when speaking to someone standing on the parapet of a bridge threatening to jump to their certain death. We need to shout if we want to be heard. We need to inject passion into our voice if we want to be listened to.

5) Much political analysis assumes that Yes and No are rival camps and tribes with little in between.

Does it? I can’t say I’ve ever encountered such nonsense masquerading as “political analysis”. What I tend to see most of is political analysis which recognises that there is a constituency outwith the Yes/No divide, but fails to appreciate the nature of that constituency. Surely nobody denies the existence of a group identifying as undecided. Surely nobody is foolish enough to discount the disengaged. What is it that both the “rival camps” of Yes and No are trying to do if not persuade those “in between” to come into their camp rather than their rivals’? And/or to convince those in their camp that they shouldn’t drift off into the realm of the “in between”?

Without a pool of potentially persuadable voters there is no campaign. Arguably, absent such a pool there could be no cause. Where a lot of political analysis goes wrong is in the way ir regards this pool or how it breaks down into its own differentiated “camps’. The prime examples are the undecided, many (most?) of whom are not undecided at all; and the so-called ‘soft No voters’, who may not exist at all.

I am very sceptical of the idea of targeted campaigning. That is to say, campaigning which claims to be able to identify particular groups of voters who are both persuadable and have enough in common to be persuaded by a message tailored to that group. I am especially dubious about this idea in relation to a referendum campaign. (Elections are an entirely different matter.) This is not the place to essay a fuller explanation of my scepticism. Suffice it to say that a referendum being a binary issue, a campaign which uses multiple messages is likely to be too diffuse and confusing and even inconsistent and self-contradictory, to be effective. It is not individuals we are trying to persuade. It is the electorate. They are two very different beasts.

Gerry Hassan refers to the “missing million” who “need reaching out to in different, imaginative ways”. All too often this is interpreted as a need to fashion reasons for voting Yes that coopt something extraneous to the constitutional issue. To give a crude illustration, the suggestion may be made that independent Scotland would be ‘more socialist’. In fact, crude as it is, this is an argument that is quite often heard. The problem with a message tailor-made for one group is that it might be a very bad fit for another. Stating that independent Scotland would be ‘more socialist’ might persuade some people into the Yes camp. But only at the cost of deterring those for whom the idea of a ‘more socialist’ Scotland is anathema. And, perhaps more importantly, a whole collection of such messages would muddy the waters to the point where the objective is totally lost.

The problem is not formulating these tailored messages, but targeting them. There will always be leakage., The message intended for one group will inevitably be pick up by others outwith that group. Including those who are likely to be deterred by that message. The more different theoretically targeted messages you have, the greater the aggregate leakage. The campaign as a whole lacks credibility because it lacks coherence and cohesion. Such campaigns lose.

Better to formulate a single message with the broadest possible appeal and use different voices to reach the reachable parts of the “missing million”. Voices that cannot be ignored. Voices that stir feelings at least as much as they sit comfortably with the intellect. That message is the core of the issue. Therefore, it must be the core of the campaign. It is not a message about independence at all. It is a message about the Union. It tells of how unjust and anti-democratic and deleterious to Scotland the Union is.

to be continued

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