Shaping the campaign

Andrew Tickell comes to the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion concerning the motives behind the British Electoral Commission’s insistence on ‘influencing’ the question asked in the new referendum. It’s because it’s the British Electoral Commission. And the important word there is ‘British’. It is an agency of the very entity which seeks to preserve the Union at any cost. It is only to be expected that it will reflect the “Sir Humphrey grade cynicism” of the British political elite.

Any intervention by any agency of the British state must constitute undue – and very likely unlawful – outside interference in the process by which Scotland exercises its right of self-determination.

Andrew’s exploration of the importance – or otherwise – of the language used in a referendum question is as perspicacious as we would expect. But one comment stands out.

… the basic language of a referendum can powerfully shape how the respective sides are able to campaign

This is a crucial insight. The British Electoral Commission – and by extension the British sate – is pretty much exclusively concerned with the the way the framing of the referendum question affects voters. For obvious reasons. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state largely rely on a highly developed apparatus devoted to the manipulation of public perceptions.

But, as Andrew observes, the referendum question is only part of a complex web of influences affecting voters. It is the campaign as a whole that is the context within which these influences operate. So it stands to reason that the most important thing about the question is the way it shapes the campaign. In relation to a new constitutional referendum, that importance is immeasurable.

Consider the question asked in 2014.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Ask this question of any other nation and you would be regarded as an idiot. The people of those nations might regard the question as offensive, if they thought about it at all rather than dismissing it out of hand. That’s because independence is the normal, default status of a nation. The people of all nations take their independence for granted. It’s the way things are and the way they should be. So a more appropriate question might ask why Scotland must be the exception.

The 2014 referendum campaign was entirely shaped by this questioning of independence. It was the condition of independence that was being challenged, despite this being the ‘natural’ condition of nations. The question was inappropriate and it shaped the campaign in a way that favoured the anti-independence side by forcing the Yes campaign onto the defensive.

Surely simple logic dictates that it is the Union which should be questioned. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which is ‘unnatural’. It is the Union that sets Scotland apart from other nations. It is the Union that prevents Scotland from being normal.

Consider how different the campaign would have been had the question been,

Should Scotland dissolve the Union with England?

Such a question accepts the default assumption of independence and challenges the claim that an alternative constitutional settlement is preferrable. It forces Unionists to justify the Union. It puts the Union under scrutiny rather than the concept of independence which, despite – or perhaps because of – it being so ‘natural’, can be difficult to define.

Independence was placed at the centre of the constitutional issue. But independence is a disputed concept. Think back to the 2014 referendum. Not only were there massive differences between the way independence was portrayed by the opposing sides, there were significant differences even within the Yes campaign. A multitude of them! There was no single universally agreed idea of independence on which the Yes campaign could focus. Campaigning for a disputed concept is seriously problematic. The anti-independence campaign had no such problem.

The Union is not a disputed concept. It is a fact. It is a concrete thing. What is disputed is the justice and efficacy of that thing. Does this not, even at an intuitive level, seem like a more rational basis for a referendum? Does it not makes sense that, if there is to be a debate, then all the parties should be talking about the same thing? A referendum is, by definition, binary. So surely it is a basic prerequisite of a referendum that everybody should be campaign for or against the same thing.

The 2014 referendum campaign wasn’t so much shaped by the question as badly distorted by it. I accept that it almost certainly had to be that way given the circumstances that pertained 7 or 8 years ago. But the lesson is there to be learned. And circumstances have changed dramatically. We must not allow the new campaign to be distorted in the same way. And allowing agencies of the British state to determine the question is a sure way of ensuring that it is.

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Considering consequences

pw_siuAssuming, as we must, that Pete Wishart is not entirely delighted at having been appointed poster-boy for the uglier fringes of anti-democratic ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism, he will doubtless be glad of the succour offered by Andrew Tickell. The veteran SNP MP will surely be aware that there’s precious little support for his call to inaction across the Yes movement.

Having trained as a lawyer, Andrew Tickell will probably be aware of the Latin term argumentum ad verecundiam. The rest of us may be more familiar with the English translation argument from authority, or appeal to authority.

Pete Wishart’s public intervention is helpful, not least because his description of the lie of the land better reflects the ambivalent conversations between independence supporters you hear behind closed doors than the noisy certainties which dominate pro-indy debates in public about where Nicola Sturgeon should turn from here.

I don’t doubt that this reflects Andrew’s experience. But, despite his derisive dismissal of alternative accounts as “noisy certainties”, there is no reason to suppose that his experience is any more valid or representative of reality than, say, my own. I have no way of knowing the extent of his eavesdropping on “conversations between independence supporters”. For all I know, he may devote an inordinate amount of time to this pursuit. It may well be that these overheard conversation really were as “ambivalent” as he claims. He may consider that he has amassed sufficient evidence to justify his conclusion. But is it sufficient to satisfy those whose minds are open to alternative accounts?

In recent months I have travelled all over Scotland meeting and talking with individuals and groups from just about every part of the Yes movement. I found very little sign of the “ambivalence” to which Andrew refers. On the contrary, and despite my expectations, these “conversations between independence supporters” revealed a calm, considered confidence that a new referendum in September 2018 is advisable or essential or both.

Just as Andrew’s argument from the unverifiable authority of unquantified private conversations among unidentified independence supporters isn’t quite as conclusive as he might wish us to believe, so Pete Wishart’s exclusive claim to ‘pragmatism’ isn’t finding the unquestioning acceptance he seems to think it deserves. The implication that those who reject his appeal to inertia are being impractical, or overly emotional, is actually quite offensive. The people I speak to aren’t driven by mindless nationalistic fervour. They are at least as capable of rationally assessing the political situation as Pete Wishart is.

Speaking to voters on the doorsteps in his Perth and North Perthshire constituency may give Pete Wishart some insight. But there is no reason to suppose this trumps insights gained by talking to people in Troon and Thurso and Elgin and Lerwick and Glasgow and Portree and Dunfermline. And Pete Wishart’s preference for indefinitely deferring a new independence referendum is finding very little favour in any of those places.

It is arrogant folly of the worst kind to dismiss the views of these people as “noisy certainties”. Messrs Wishart and Tickell would be well advised to at least consider the possibility that the activists who are the bedrock of the Yes movement may be perfectly qualified to reach their own conclusions about the best way forward. If they reject the hyper-cautious approach being commended by a handful of independence supporters it may well be for very sound reasons. Perhaps, like me, they’ve noticed something missing from Pete Wishart’s argument. Perhaps, like me, they’re still waiting to be told what criteria might be used to assess this “optimum time”. Perhaps, like me, they’re still curious as to how this “optimum time” might be predicted months in advance. Perhaps, like me, they’re left wondering how Pete Wishart can be so absolutely certain that September 2018 isn’t the “optimum time”.

Maybe, like me, they’ve considered another big hole in Pete Wishart’s argument. While he frets anxiously and dolefully about what he supposes will be the impact of holding the referendum ‘too soon’ and losing, he appears to have given no thought at all to the consequences of postponing a vote until such time as the portents are entirely auspicious and victory is absolutely assured. Or, to put it another way, never!

Perhaps, like me, those Yes activists who disagree with Pete Wishart have filled in the gaps for themselves. Perhaps, like me, they’ve considered the potential consequences of losing a September 2018 referendum and not holding a referendum in September 2018. Perhaps, like me, they’ve realised that the consequences are precisely the same in both scenarios. Perhaps, like me, they recognise that the only difference is that doing it Pete Wishart’s way makes those consequences a certainty.

Perhaps, like me, they know that the only chance we have of avoiding the onslaught of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism is to go for a referendum in September 2018 and put all our energies into making that the “optimum time”.

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