Political Campaigning for Dummies #1

Since it appeared in The National on Thursday 14 February, Andrew Wilson’s latest column has provoked a considerable amount of comment. It is safe to say that almost all of this comment has been highly critical. All of those which I’ve seen express various degrees of outrage at one of our First Minister’s advisers urging the ‘softest possible form of Scottish independence’. None of those that I’ve seen show any evidence that the individual commenting on Andrew’s article has taken the trouble to read it first.

The fact is that the words ‘softest possible form of Scottish independence’ do not appear anywhere in the piece. What Andrew actually says, after some discussion of aspects of the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report, is,

In the parlance of Brexit, we offer the softest of possible changes to the current arrangements, not the hardest.

Andrew Wilson: Next Scottish White Paper will learn from 2014 – and from Brexit

He is talking about changes to particular arrangements in the period immediately after independence. Using the “parlance of Brexit” may have been an unfortunate choice of rhetorical device, but it is no more than that – a rhetorical device. What he is saying is that the transition to independence should take the least disruptive course rather than the most disruptive. A statement which is only controversial if one is committed to maximising tumult and turbulence in the early years of Scotland’s restored independence. Or, to put it another way, you’d have to be some kind of nutter to be outraged by what Andrew Wilson actually said.

There is much to criticise in Andrew’s article. For example, his claim that the “first and most striking lesson” that the independence campaign might take from the Brexit fiasco is that we need “a prospectus and a rigorous plan”. He would say that, wouldn’t he? Given that he’s in the business of developing that prospectus and that plan.

Fortunately, Andrew is not – so far as I am aware – involved in planning the campaign which will take us to independence. The prospectus and plan to which he refers are really just attempts to explain. And, as Ronald Regan observed in one of his lucid moments, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing!”.

The “first and most striking lesson” to be taken from the Brexit mess is that a political campaign needs a comprehensible and unambiguous objective. That aim must also be deliverable. But first and foremost it must be absolutely clear what the campaign’s purpose is. You can’t even begin to formulate a prospectus and plan unless and until you establish what it is that the campaign aims to achieve.

That the Leave campaign failed in this regard is evident from the fact that much, if not all, of the early debate concerned the meaning of Brexit. A debate which was not in any sense resolved by Theresa May explaining that “Brexit means Brexit”. It is a measure of the laminar shallowness of this remark that, had you entertained an idea of Brexit as a sugar-coated dung beetle, May’s ‘explanation’ would have done absolutely nothing to disabuse you of this notion.

I hate to remind you. But Theresa May is the British Prime Minister and the person in charge of taking the UK out of the EU. A fact which makes the idea of Brexit as a sugar-coated dung beetle seem sensible and credible by comparison.

Having taken a lesson from the Leave campaign’s abysmal failure to precisely define its aim, how might the Yes movement do better. It’s safe to assume that most people would say the objective is the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But, as we discovered during the 2014 referendum campaign, the concept of independence is open to almost endless interpretation. The Yes movement spent pretty much the entire campaign trying to explain what independence means; what independence is. There were almost as many different explanations as there were people doing the explaining. Every one of those explanations invited demands for further explanation from an anti-independence campaign intent on sowing doubt and confusion. And every one of those demands drew the Yes campaign into further attempt to explain.

If it’s true that “when you’re explaining, you’re losing”, then the Yes campaign was losing big-style.

What is required is a tighter ‘mission statement’. One that states exactly what it is that is the end being pursued by the campaign. That is where #DissolveTheUnion comes in. It serves admirably as that comprehensible and unambiguous objective. There is no ‘flavour’ of independence which does not require the dissolution of the Union which is the antithesis of independence. The fundamental and essential aim of the independence cause is to bring an end to the Union. The break it. To consign it to the history from which it emerged and to which it remains incorrigibly bound.

The other lesson for today is not to trust the British media. It is remarkable that this lesson has yet to be learned by so many in the Yes movement. Of all people, you’d think those who are part of the campaign which is most commonly the target British media dishonesty would be familiar enough with the methods used to manipulate perceptions to avoid being taken in. But evidently, this is not so.

As has been pointed out, the words which caused offence did not appear in Andrew Wilson’s column. So, where did they come from? They came from headlines such as the one pictured from The Herald. People should know by now that the headline does not provide an indication of what the story below it is about. The headline tells you what the author and/or the publication want you to think the story is about. The headline is the first thrust in the process of manipulating the reader’s perception of the story. It plants the seed of deception which will then be fed by the standfirst and watered by the next few paragraphs. The default assumption when looking at any political story in the British media is that the headline is a lie.

There are abundant clues to tell the active consumer of media messages that they are being fed lies. There’s the fact that it’s The Herald, for a start. Then there’s the by-line. Tom Gordon is arguably the British media’s most adept exponent of anti-Scottish spin. He has played a major role in creating a genre of stories portraying Scotland as a dystopia where all is calamity and failure – unless it’s catastrophe and collapse. Having helped create the ‘Scotland as Hell-hole’ genre, Tom Gordon has very much made it his own. Tales of dysfunction and disaster in NHS Scotland are his speciality. Misrepresenting someone associated with the SNP is something Gordon does while roosting upside-down in his cave.

The ‘single quotes’ are another giveaway. They pretty much always tell the reader that what’s enclosed has its origins in the professionally fervid imagination of some mercenary hack. In the instance under discussion, the ‘single quotes’ scream out that the words within them were not actually spoken or written. Or, at least, they do for the minimally astute consumer of the British media’s output. Which clearly doesn’t include those denouncing Andrew Wilson for something he didn’t say.

Surely one of the most basic lessons to be learned by anyone hoping to be part of a political campaign is that your shouldn’t embrace your opponents’ propaganda. And you sure as hell shouldn’t promulgate that propaganda by parroting it all over social media. If, as a campaign activist, you are saying the same things as the opposition campaign, you are in desperate need of shutting the f*** up and applying such wit as you possess to reflecting on your behaviour.

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Comfortable with uncertainty

George Kerevan states that the Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC) “wants an independent Scotland to keep the pound sterling for an indefinite period”. This is not the case. What the SGC suggests is that Scotland continues to use our existing currency for a transitional period which is undefined. ‘Undefined’ is not the same as ‘indefinite’.

As in many other areas, this is simply a matter of the SGC acknowledging reality. The point at which Scotland transitions from sterling to any new currency arrangement cannot be predetermined. It must be a matter for the judgement of the government of the day taking account of prevailing circumstances.

It is, of course, possible to argue that there should be no transition period; that Scotland should move to an independent currency immediately upon independence being restored. But, if the need – or desirability – of a transitional arrangement is accepted, then it must also be accepted that the duration of this period cannot be set in stone. To do so would impose undue constraint on the Scottish Government.

The most we might sensibly do is place an obligation on the government to move to an independent currency at the earliest possible time.

We might reasonably suppose that, if the intention is to adopt an economic strategy informed by MMT, some preparation will be required. This could necessitate a transitional arrangement even if it is not ideal. The crucial factor here is the timescale for restoring independence.

If we had another five years then it would almost certainly be possible to eliminate the need for a post-independence transitional currency arrangement. Anybody who thinks we can afford to wait that long to dissolve the Union really isn’t paying attention. Perhaps because they’re too busy obsessing about the fine detail of currency arrangements and economic policy.

Not being either an economist or a political fantasist, I long since became comfortable with the fact that the future can nether be wholly known nor absolutely determined. I am satisfied that Scotland will have a functioning currency. Because the notion that we might not is too ridiculous to contemplate. And I am satisfied that Scotland is perfectly capable of managing its own currency arrangements and economic policy. Because the implication that we might not is both profoundly offensive and contrary to all available evidence.

The vanishing road

road_closedI would certainly prefer to be discussing the duration of a transition period between the decision to dissolve the Union and actual independence rather than the length of a delay in making that decision. But there is something else we must bear in mind regarding the “final principle that applies when it comes to project management”. We may not have a choice.

It’s all very well to say that we can pick any two out of ‘cheap’, ‘quick’ and ‘good’. But choices are constrained by circumstances. And the aspect of those circumstances which seems little considered is the reaction of the British state to the prospect of losing Scotland.

It is rightly pointed out that sketching plans for the future requires making certain assumptions. The manner in which the British state conducts itself would seem to loom large in any independence scenario. And yet, beyond a rather casual discounting of a “Madrid style campaign of political repression”, there’s precious little discussion of how the British state will behave. Or, more pertinently, the assumptions it would be prudent to make about how it will behave.

In this regard, the discussion of a transition period resembles ‘wait and see’ talk of postponing a new referendum. In nether case do we find any recognition of the fact that locking Scotland into a political union is an absolute imperative for the British state. Factoring that imperative into our thinking, along with what we know of how the British state responded in 2014 when it began to look like Scotland might vote Yes, the only sensible conclusion is that we must anticipate that the British establishment will resort to desperate measures. We certainly cannot afford to underestimate their capacity for the very lowest of low politics.

In terms of those project management options, it seems likely that, at least to some extent, both ‘cheap’ and ‘good’ may have to be sacrificed in favour of ‘quick’.

This, too, is true of both the transition period and the scheduling of a new referendum. In both cases, we are almost certainly going to be obliged to compromise on cost and quality in order to get the thing done quickly. There’s no point in complaining. There was always going to be a price to pay for the No vote in 2014. Part of that price is that the democratic road to independence is now much narrower and daily more littered with obstacles.

How long before that road becomes impassable, or is closed altogether? Is a three year transition period even a choice? And, even if it is a choice now, will it still be a choice should The Postponers get their way and there is a delay of one, two or even three years before that transition period can commence?

What mischief might be wrought on Scotland between now and 2025?

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Thanks, Andrew, but…

I confess, without a scintilla of embarrassment, that I have not read the Sustainable Growth Commission‘s (SGC) full 353-page report from cover to cover. I have skimmed through the thing a few times, lighting on bits which hint that they might prevent my attention from flagging completely. I have more thoroughly perused the less daunting 55-page summary. And I did devote some time and effort to more in-depth study of Section C – the stuff about currency and monetary policy that seems to be getting some people all worked up. Although I’m still not sure why. I am, I think, sufficiently aware of the report’s main proposals.

Other than for the purposes of discussion, there’s not really a lot of point in me poring over this tome. It wasn’t written for me. It was written for people who crave the scant comfort of a superficial order imposed on economic chaos; or those seeking diversion in the near-infinite potential for dispute; or those aware that they are sure to find opportunities to relieve the straining bladder of their pent-up outrage.

It was written for people who need to be convinced that Scotland is economically viable. That’s not me. I want independence for reasons which are almost certainly incomprehensible to those who suppose I might be persuaded by an economic argument.

With all due respect to Andrew Wilson, I don’t need him to tell me Scotland can pay its way. I know that already. I know that, not by studying statistics and graphs and tables of economic data and performing complex cost/benefit analyses which, for all their mathematical impressiveness, are really no more than an elaborate way of getting from a preconceived idea to a foregone conclusion, but by a simple process of observation. I am sure that Scotland is able to pay its own way because I look at what is actually happening in the real world outside all those fancy economic models. I look! And I see that Scotland is already paying its own way.

Everything we have in Scotland is supported by the Scottish economy. All the infrastructure and all the public services and all the pensions and all the benefits and all the rest, we pay for it. Who else is there?

The ‘Too wee! Too poor! Too stupid!’ narrative which is the constant underlying refrain of the anti-independence campaign rests entirely on the notion of a net fiscal transfer to Scotland from the rest of the UK (rUK). But you don’t need to be a highly trained economist to see that this is impossible. The UK economy is in deficit. You can’t have a net fiscal transfer from a deficit. You can’t get something out of nothing. There is no magic money tree.

The only thing that can be transferred from a deficit budget is a part of that deficit – together with the debt and debt servicing costs needed to sustain the deficit. We know for an absolute fact that rUK doesn’t ‘give’ Scotland money, because it is an uncontested fact that rUK doesn’t have any money to give. What is portrayed as a ‘subsidy’ is actually money that is, effectively, borrowed on Scotland’s behalf by the British government, in arrangement over which we have no control and for purposes of which we largely disapprove. The costs of servicing this debt are then charged to Scotland’s taxpayers in precisely the same way that taxpayers throughout the UK pay for servicing the UK debt as a whole.

In a worst-case post-independence scenario, Scotland would continue to run a deficit budget; continue to borrow to the same extent in order to sustain that deficit; and continue to charge taxpayers in the same way to service that debt. In short, nothing changes! Nothing changes with independence, other than our capacity to effect change.

I didn’t need this explained to me in a 353-page report. It is majestically obvious.

Nor was I shocked, horrified and/or angry to be informed that the starting point for Scotland’s economy immediately after the Union is dissolved will be what, for want of a better term, we may as well call ‘Tory austerity’. How could it be anything else? That’s where we are. We have to start from where we are. Other than in the demented fantasies of the terminally deluded, there is no option to start from where we want to be; or somewhere closer to where we want to be.

We start as a nation with its sovereignty fully restored from wherever the Union has taken us. Which is precisely why it is essential that we restore the ability to fully exercise our sovereignty as a matter of urgency. Because the Union is taking Scotland at a rapid and accelerating rate to a place from which recovery will be more and more difficult.

That recovery is a process, not an event. Independence is about reinstating the people of Scotland as the ultimate arbiters of how we go about repairing the damage done to our nation by the Union. Understanding the nature of the problems that the Union has bequeathed us is vital if we are to decide how best to rectify those problems. And accepting that ‘Tory austerity’ is the inescapable starting point is crucial to that understanding.

The SGC report is a tool for exploring possible ways in which the recovery process might work. It is one of several such tools. Every one of them should carry a disclaimer stating that all their calculations and conclusions are subject to revision in the light of how things actually turn out in the real world. The way things go in the real world will be decided by the people of Scotland. I see no harm at all in having such tools to inform our debates and deliberations. But I am well aware that you can’t answer a constitutional question with a calculator.

In part, at least, the SGC report is intended to offer reassurance to those who still harbour doubts fostered by decades of British propaganda. I have never entertained such doubts. I have always had total confidence in Scotland’s people.

Thanks all the same, Andrew, but I have never needed an economist to tell me that Scotland is ‘Clever enough! Big enough! Wealthy enough!’.

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The stroppy tendency

stroppy_tendencyThere is a delicious irony in the fact that Michael Fry’s thoroughly justified condemnation of the Scottish left’s attacks on the Sustainable Growth Commission’s (SGC) report is juxtaposed with him making one of the most serious errors of those he castigates. The following paragraph makes my point.

Now we learn, thanks to Andrew Wilson, that Nicola Sturgeon recognises this strategy has failed to inspire the new impetus the SNP needs to carry it successfully through the difficult period of Brexit.

Just like the “progressive socialists” he condemns for failing to properly appreciate the report, Michael Fry fails to understand that the document is intended to inform SNP thinking rather than reflect it. The worst misrepresentation of the report by righteous radicals is the oft-repeated assertion that it commits the party – and, inexplicably, post-independence Scotland – to immediate and irrevocable implementation of every word of Andrew Wilson’s recommendations.

The reality, of course, is that the report commits nobody to anything. It is, as Dr Craig Dalzell has been at pains to stress while offering his own critical analysis, a discussion document – nothing more. Doubtless large parts will emerge unscathed from what will inevitably be a very rigorous process of scrutiny and debate within the SNP. (A process not being replicated by any of those presuming to demand massive amendment (or incineration) of the SGC report without the formality of discussion.) But other bits are likely to fare less well at the hands of SNP members who will attend the planned National Assemblies in their thousands.

What emerges from this process may not even then be a true reflection of the SNP leadership’s preferences. But it will be something that the party as a whole can get behind.

It would be gratifying to suppose that the rest of the Yes movement might do likewise en masse. But I fear it would be naive to hope that those “progressive socialists” might set aside their partisan loyalties and factional agendas in the name of rescuing Scotland from a British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project that threatens everything they supposedly value – and much more besides.

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