Information is not enough

Mike Russell does a fine job of setting out the choice facing the people of Scotland. He is rather stating the obvious when he observes that “the UK political and media establishment, dripping with privilege and disdainful of democracy, will try to stop us making that choice, using all their malign tricks and lies”. Which doesn’t mean this isn’t worth saying. It is not possible to overstate the gravity of Scotland’s predicament. Reminders of this are always warranted however often they are repeated.

He is also correct to point out that the British propaganda machine has previously succeeded in disrupting and distorting the exercise of our right of self-determination with the daily drip of disdain and disinformation growing to a torrent of “malign tricks and lies” in the weeks and months prior to the choice being made. It is again stating the obvious but essential to say that we cannot afford to let them do so again.

Given the precarity and urgency of Scotland’s predicament, it is surely vital to have the fullest possible understanding of the “tricks and lies” by which the British state interferes in Scotland’s exercise of our right of self-determination to the detriment of truth, democracy and the nation. And this is where I fear the SNP falls far short of what is required. The party’s analysis of the 2014 referendum campaign is shallow, lackadaisical and frankly amateurish – leading to a failure to properly comprehend why that campaign played out as it did. At the heart of this failure of analysis lies a deep and abiding reluctance to admit that the No campaign did anything right. And yet they must have done. Because they won!

The word “right” is used here only in the sense of what was effective rather than as a normative judgement. The analysis must be objective if it is to be of any value. The fact that methods and tactics may have been improper is less important than that they had the desired effect. What matters is what works. It doesn’t matter how unethical or immoral or even illegal the methods were if the outcome stands regardless. It could easily be argued that the anti-independence campaign won in 2014 because they knew the result would be unchallengeable no matter how brazenly they flouted norms of behaviour. They won because they admitted little in the way of ethical or moral constraints and only such legal limitations as could not be circumvented. There is no behaviour which cannot be justified in the name of preserving the Union.

By contrast, the Yes campaign was severely limited in what it could do. And further limited by what it chose not to do despite there being no reason not to. The obsession with happy-clappy positivity was as relentless in its way as the grinding carborundum dust of the British propaganda effort. The No campaign was ‘wrong’, but ultimately effective – or effective enough. The Yes campaign was ‘right’, but ultimately ineffective – or not effective enough. However you state it, Yes lost. No won. We need to understand why Yes lost. We also need to understand how No won. Not envisaging the wholesale adoption of the No campaign’s methods and tactics but in order to better inform the Yes campaign for the next referendum.

This is where the SNP’s analysis of the campaign – to whatever extent there was any – fell woefully short of what was required. We don’t need to have been close to the conduct of that analysis to know that it was inadequate. We know from what the SNP has done (and hasn’t done!) in the years since 2014 that the party was proceeding (or not!) on the basis of conclusions drawn from a study of the first campaign that were simplistic, erroneous or absent. If the party had done a proper analysis of the campaign then it would have behaved very differently over the last eight years.

A political campaign is a marketing exercise. This may be particularly true of a single-issue campaign such as the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. (Note the language here. It matters.) Marketing is something close to being a science. Certainly, some aspects of it are highly scientific in that they are based of tried and tested truths about what works and what doesn’t. Buyer behaviour is well understood. Market behaviour is well understood. What works for selling soup or soap also works for selling social and political reform. This is not to say these things are equivalent. Or that what is effective for the material products directly translates into what is effective in selling an idea. But there is a great deal more similarity than many involved in political campaigning are willing to admit. Idealists are perhaps understandably reluctant to think of themselves as flogging goods. Idealists are at home in political movements. They are not always a good fit with political campaigns.

One of the important differences between marketing a product and a political idea relates to what motivates potential ‘buyers’ of either. It is said that people don’t vote what they know, they vote what they feel. This is an essential truth that must be taken on board by any political campaign. In fact, information is considerably more important in relation to the marketing of products than it is with regard to the marketing of political ideas. Think of it this way! Look at any product on the supermarket shelves. Look at the labelling – an essential component of that product’s marketing. Look at the label on the back. It is likely to be a mass of information. The label on the front – the purchaser-facing label – is likely to be very simple by comparison with elements which are visually appealing and emotionally stimulating rather than informative. The label on the back is the appeal to intellect. The label on the front is the appeal to emotion. The label on the back is about what people should know about the product. The label on the front is about how the marketers want people to feel about the product. The latter is vastly more important than the former. That’s why it’s facing the (potential) purchaser.

People purchase products on the basis of their feelings about the product – or brand – to a much greater extent than on the basis of their knowledge of ingredients etc. It’s no different for political ideas. Just as the information on the back of the packet has to be there – for reasons which should be obvious – so a political campaign must be supported by hard information. But just as it’s the label on the front that matters most in relation to products so it is the emotional appeal of the political campaign that most directly and forcefully impacts potential purchasers – or voters. The notion that you can build a successful political campaign solely, or even primarily on ‘hard’ information is false and foolish. The information goes on the back. The bright, simple emotionally appealing label goes on the front. The SNP has always got this wrong.

Mr Russell states that the Scottish Government’s independence publications are important. He says they “need to be distributed (and read) as far and wide as possible as the factual antidote to the fictional defamations”. I have to tell him that they will probably not be distributed as widely as he hopes; they definitely won’t be read by more than a fraction of those reached by the distribution, and they will be no better than a weak antidote to the powerful and plentiful poison of British propaganda.

That propaganda is effective not because of its information content – truthful or otherwise – but because of what it makes people feel. That emotional appeal cannot be countered by an appeal to the intellect. The two work in entirely different ways and the emotional appeal can readily be made powerful enough to overwhelm the small part of the intellectual appeal which actually gets through to the potential purchaser. The potential purchaser is generally averse to the effort involved in absorbing and processing information. They are generally much more inclined to the immediate gratifications of an emotional appeal. Once that emotional appeal hooks the potential purchaser’s attention the inclination to attend to information falls off a cliff.

The No campaign won in 2014 because of the effectiveness of its appeal to the emotional as opposed to the Yes campaign’s appeal to the factual. And that emotional appeal was not to fear, as the term ‘Project Fear’ implies. The emotion exploited by the anti-independence campaign was not fear but doubt. It wasn’t ‘Project Fear’. It was ‘Project Doubt’. A campaign exploiting fear would not have been effective for a number of reasons. Reaction to fear is unpredictable. Fear cannot be maintained – or can only be maintained with great difficulty. There comes a point at which ramping up fear becomes literally incredible. Doubt, on the other hand, is pre-existing, ever-present and self-sustaining. Once the seed of doubt is planted it invariably takes root and grows with little tending. Natural reservations can quite easily be aggravated into disaffecting worries. Doubt needs no rational basis. where there is a point at which scare stories part company with credibility doubts tend to persist. They tend to be resistant to reason. A person can ‘know’ a thing to be either true or untrue yet still ‘feel’ doubt about it.

The British propaganda campaign didn’t have to make people afraid of independence. It only needed to make people have doubts about it. The Yes campaign failed to address this. In fact, the Yes campaign helped generate and aggravate doubt by presenting a mass of information from a plethora of sources which was always confusing and often contradictory. The Yes campaign lacked the emotional appeal that might have countered ‘Project Doubt’ sufficiently to make all the difference that was required to swing the result from No to Yes.

That emotional appeal should have been then and must be now an appeal to something in human nature which is as innate as the sense of caution – the sense of fairness. An appeal based on the inherent injustices of the Union and the ‘natural’ rightness of independence would if done well, overcome all but the severest doubts. If doubt about independence worked as a weapon for the No campaign why would doubt about the Union not work for the Yes campaign?

I have long suspected that Mike Russell is one of those in the upper echelons of the SNP who recognises the need to reframe the constitutional issue and rethink the Yes campaign. As President of the party, however, there is only so much he can say. This suspicion is strengthened when I read the comment with which I close. In Mike Russell’s words I find distinct traces of that appeal to the emotions which will transform the Yes campaign.

We must with clarity and honesty present the facts about the relative decline of the UK and the inevitability of Scotland being dragged further into impoverishment if the Union continues. It is essential we explode the myth of “Great Britain” and look past our nearest neighbour to the normality that exists outside this island. It is imperative that we recognise that the choice is clear and stark – either join in the modern world as an internationally focused EU member or fade away as a powerless adjunct of an isolationist but stridently nationalist England.

Michael Russell: Independence papers will be factual antidote to Project Fear


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10 thoughts on “Information is not enough

  1. The decline of the UK is set to continue for a number of years and it’s not clear at all whether the current elites have the slightest hope of reversing that trend. It might take a generation to change the calibre of the politician needed to solve the problems the UK faces.

    We will have a better idea towards the end of this year when the scope of the rise in inflation will be more apparent and better understood. Perhaps then the tables will be turned on Project Fear and doubts sown on the wisdom on continuing in this dysfunctional marriage.

    The only real question that needs answered is “Will I better off if I vote Yes?” Campaigning for a fairer, greener, more equal Scotland is all too abstract and wishy-washy and not go to help much. Only when everyone can say “we can make things better” will there be a good chance of dispelling the doubt.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A very good analysis.

    As per a product marketing campaign the SNP could have identified a sample of ‘No’ voters from 2014, targeted them with messages at periodic intervals and tracked the proportion that moved to being in favour of ‘Yes’ over time.

    There has been plenty of questions to test, including:

    Would you have voted ‘No’ if you realised that the Better Together promises of

    EU Membership Guarantee
    HMRC Jobs
    T8 Clydebuilt Frigates: 13 Contracts
    The Vow
    Home Rule/Federalism/Devo-Max

    would in reality turn out to be

    Brexit
    Cumbernauld Office Closures
    T8 Clydebuilt Frigates: 8 Orders
    EVEL
    Smith Commission whitewash

    The impact of each questions could be measured and the conversion rate (from No to Yes) compared to that in an untargeted ‘control’ group of ‘No’ voters to see if there was any significant difference.

    With some knowledge built up on what works and what doesn’t for particular audiences these could have been applied in a full-on campaign.

    But that ship has sailed now.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think that the foremost thing that must be done is to identify those who would vote for you and concentrate on them. No point in scattergun fire then you can target your demographic like a sniper. For starters, the Scottish middle-class is largely a waste of time because: a) only a fraction is actually Scottish now, so you would be targeting mainly rUK migrants for whom independence is anathema; and, b) middle-class people, on the whole, live by the “I’m all right, Jack” concept of political existence – not all, by any means, but the majority. That is the case whether they are Tory, Labour or Lib Dem: they are Unionist in the bone.

    What must be avoided is to promise the Earth to the working-class and non-working voters who are struggling to make ends meet on low wages and benefits. Spell out the truth: that we can target resources at specific social problems only if we are independent and have all the levers of power at our fingertips. So many aspects of their lives, and our lives, are micro-managed by Westminster for the very simple reason that everything that really matters to an independent state has been purloined and reserved. All that devolved powers can do is ameliorate and nibble away at massive problems that cannot be fixed for Scotland and Scots without independence, and that has to be hammered home, too.

    The third thing that must be hammered home to those rUK middle-class migrants is that we are legally entitled to seek our independence, and if they don’t like it, tough. We won’t be tolerating their undermining us a second time with such arrogant contempt for our rights as a nation and people. That is where the constitutional tools come in. Question them as to their knowledge of the Scottish party in government when they arrived here: if they knew it was a party for independence, why did they come and why did they stay if it so offends their sensibilities? It is not anti English or anti immigrant to ask those questions because they chime with the UN legislation on colonisation and racist blocking of independence for nations and peoples, not to mention the basic human right to lead one’s own life as one pleases, to which, all of those, the Westminster government is a signatory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those “rUK middle-class migrants” are part of that “we”. They won’t be inclined to vote Yes if they’re made to feel excluded. Many of them will be the very people we need to target. Namely, the people who might be induced to question the Union. It is very common to hear these “migrants” – especially those from England – say that they didn’t realise how different Scotland was until they moved here. Many come to understand why independence is so essential. Because they are in a position to make comparisons they are frequently easy to persuade. We definitely don’t want to alienate them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. These middle class folk, whether migrant or Scottish-born, can be frightened into the Yes camp too by appropriate messaging regarding the current and anticipated economic woes. For example:

        Inflation – it’s 10% and rising so watch out for your savings
        Cost of living – better swap Waitrose and M&S for Lidl and Aldi
        Energy Bills – you think they are high now, just wait till next winter
        State Pensions – these are lowest in Western Europe and will go lower in real terms

        You’d better vote Yes to protect your own self-interests.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I concur. I am such a person. Our family moved to Scotland 40+ years ago. In the early 1980’s I was invited to read the ‘McCrone report’ and was horrified at what I read. This was the catalyst for me to dig deeper and ultimately become a supporter of Independence. In my 74th year I hate to think of the state of Scotland if we do not achieve Independence.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree with your views on the last para you quote of Mike Russel’s article, there are signs that he gets the points about creating doubts and fears about the future of the union.

    Another point though is that we have a habit of lumping all of the immigrants from England together as if they were a homogenous group in political terms – they are not. I think it is impossible to win over the tories among them so the “win them for indy” message needs to ignore them and focus on those of liberal or socialist mind – and those groups do exist, though I haven’t seen numbers. So all of the positive messages associated with “Scotland better” and the negative ones related to “Tory rule Bad” need to be directed at them and lets not worry too much about pissing off those of a unionist persuasion.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I do not think we should write off the “middle class”, I don’t like this identifier of middle or working class, it achieves nothing putting people in these boxes and is a poor measurement of the demographic. I know loads who think they are middle class many of who could be converted to yes.

    Peter’s analogy of cans and labels is excellent. In the supermarket, the SNP cans would have blank front labels leading to shoppers walking by. Turning the cans around so the back labels faced the front would only lead to questions of what was in the can and was it any good?

    Brexit was the exact opposite of the SNP cans. The cans on the shelve had front labels with the most popular cans being “£350 Million for NHS”, “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”. Nothing was needed on the reverse of the labels, so no questions were asked.

    Liked by 3 people

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