It is nearly a week since I wrote anything. As other bloggers will testify, a blog is a ravenous beast. It must be fed regularly or it shrivels and dies. It’s all about content. Which is why I haven’t written anything. I’ve had nothing to say that I haven’t said many times already. Such repetition – although sometimes justifiable on the grounds of importance – doesn’t meet my definition of content. It counts only as filler. Generally, I scan the news and to a lesser extent social media, hoping something will spark some enthusiasm. Or provoke some ire – as is more commonly the case. The real gems are the things that prompt some fresh thinking – particularly on the constitutional issue. Such gems have become extremely rare.
Today is no different. I am uninspired by anything in the news. There’s always stuff to be angry about. But mostly it’s stuff I’ve already been angry about. Or stuff that I’ve been angry about for so long the fire has gone out. I seem to have been saying the same things for years. Mainly because I have been saying the same things for years. It can be very wearying trying to find new ways of saying it’s a monumentally bad idea to request a Section 30 order. or point out that there is no route to the restoration of Scotland’s independence that doesn’t involve confrontation with the British state. Or that there is no route to independence through the constitutional and legal framework put in place by the British state. Or that Nicola Sturgeon appears not to possess the wherewithal to defy the British state and step outside that legal and constitutional framework. It has all been said countless times.
There are some things I used to write about but no longer do. Usually, because there’s no point. What purpose might be served by warning about the British state using Brexit as an opportunity to further reinforce the legal and constitutional shackles by which England-as-Britain hold Scotland as annexed territory? Brexit is done. At least in the sense that the legislation has been passed. There is no purpose to be served by pointing out the bits of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill now that it is an Act of the British parliament. The time is long for people to take to the streets to protest against provisions by which the British government awarded itself new and extended powers to overrule the devolved parliaments (Clause11). Or the provision which wrote into the law Nicola Sturgeon is so reluctant to challenge, the English principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Thereby imposing that principle on Scotland in a way that means it takes precedence over the principle of popular sovereignty which is the bedrock of our political culture.
Despite all that was said and written about these measures at the time, there was little or nothing in the way of mass protest. Marchers continued to chant “Tories out!” as if that would make the slightest difference even if the chant somehow was translated into reality. The Yes movement failed to pick up on the propaganda cues fed to them. Just as it did all through the campaign for the 2014 referendum. For all its uselessness, at least the “Tories out!” chant had the benefit of being common to a significant part of the Yes movement. Other than that every wee group and faction pursued its own agenda. If we ever got the combined voice of the whole movement it was entirely by accident and never sustained. It couldn’t be activated purposefully. So that voice has never been as powerful as it could be.
To be fair to Yes activists, the SNP has never been very good at providing those propaganda cues. This was just one of the lessons of the 2014 campaign that the SNP failed to learn. A proper analysis of that campaign would have looked at everything that was done by both sides in order to determine what worked and what didn’t. It was important to find areas where the Yes campaign was effective. It was at least as essential to discover areas where the No campaign was effective to see if the tactics could be adopted and adapted. Of course, it was necessary to correctly identify weaknesses in the Yes campaign. But it was at least as important to identify where the Unionist campaign is vulnerable. All indications are that precisely none of this was done. Almost the moment the result of the 2014 referendum was announced the SNP started to maintain that we lost because the Yes message wasn’t right or wasn’t persuasive enough. They insisted that we had to devote ourselves to honing that message in preparation for a new referendum. It was almost as if this response had been prepared in advance. It certainly wasn’t the product of the kind of rigorous analysis I’m talking about.
My own back-of-an-envelope analysis revealed many lessons that if applied could make for a much improved Yes campaign. one of the things I noted was the way the no campaign had been very good at picking up on propaganda cues and using them effectively. This meant that despite being far smaller in numerical terms, the No campaign was considerably louder. It had a voice out of all proportion to its size. It is usually assumed that this was entirely due to the preponderance of anti-independence media outlets. But like a blog, the media have to be fed in order that they can in turn serve as the work-horses of the British propaganda effort. A simple example may serve to illustrate what I mean by propaganda cues and how they can aid a campaign if used effectively.
A leading figure in the anti-independence campaign drops a juicy soundbite – let’s say “economic black hole” – which is duly given prominence in media reporting of the referendum campaign. Once it has been reported that might be the end of it until some other British Nationalist comes out with another juicy soundbite. But suppose supporters of the anti-independence campaign are primed to look for such propaganda cues and seize them. Almost immediately and for several days, the phrase “economic black hole” is appearing in every Unionist letter to the editor, every BritNat post on social media, every anti-independence blog, and popping up in every pro-Union column and every speech and interview featuring a spokesbladder for the No campaign. The phrase, and more importantly its negative associations, is everywhere. And everywhere it is it’s attached to the idea of independence. All of which feeds back into the media. The soundbite becomes the story. The “economic black hole” associated with independence becomes concrete, despite it being nothing more than empty rhetoric. It is afforded a spurious substance by being a propaganda cue that is exploited to its fullest.
The No campaign was extremely good at this. It made a significant (decisive?) contribution to the effort to smother the idea of independence in a thick miasma of doubt.
The Yes campaign was exceptionally poor at utilising the potential of propaganda cues. Largely because the leading figures in that campaign were pish-poor at providing propaganda cues. Take those provisions in the Brexit legislation I referred to earlier. Michael Russell in his role as the Scottish Government’s Brexit Minister, did much to highlight the sovereignty implication of the legislation. But he didn’t do so in a way that provided an ‘oven-ready’ propaganda cue. He spoke and wrote eloquently enough. But he didn’t reduce the matter to a soundbite of the sort that is easily taken up by activists.
All of the foregoing was prompted by something that came up on my Twitter timeline accusing the SNP of being “silent” on the matter of the imposition of parliamentary sovereignty as described by Carwyn Jones.
I do not accept that the SNP was silent on this. They weren’t. They just failed to exploit fully – or at all – the potential propaganda value of these measures. But that failure was not the SNP’s alone. Because had the Yes campaign been capable of making use of propaganda cues in the way the No campaign did, even Mike Russell’s words could have been translated into a slogan that the Yes campaign could shout with a single voice.
I guess we must mark this is yet another of those missed opportunities that I’ve written about so often. But now I’m repeating myself. Again!