Getting it right

In responding to the advice offered by Ian Dommett and Dr Iain Black regarding lessons the Yes campaign must learn to win a second referendum there are a three points which must be made right at the outset.

Firstly, the Yes campaign did not fail. In fact, by any reasonable measure it succeeded quite spectacularly. It just didn’t succeed enough. The efforts of the Yes campaign resulted in a doubling of support for independence – an outcome that was achieved against the background of aggressive opposition across the media and one of the most unscrupulous campaigns ever mounted by the British state in peacetime.

If the Yes movement had failed in the first referendum campaign, we wouldn’t be talking about a second one.

Secondly, there was nothing wrong with the Yes message. The basic message of the Yes campaign was sound. It was then, and remains now, a principled, aspirational message. It is message about addressing constitutional anomaly, democratic deficit and social injustice by wholly lawful and entirely peaceful means.

If the Yes campaign’s message did not resonate with the people of Scotland, we would not have come so close to succeeding enough in the first referendum campaign, and we wouldn’t be talking about a second referendum.

Thirdly, a No vote was not necessarily a vote for the union. Those who voted No could have no idea what they were voting for. Initially, they were told that a No vote was a vote for the status quo – for no change. Latterly, they were told that a No vote was a vote for all manner of different constitutional goodie-bags, the actual contents of which were always shrouded in mystery.

The British parties and the British state reserved the right to define what a No vote meant after the event. But, by polling day, nobody who had been persuaded by the No campaign could possibly suppose that they were voting for the union as it was.
If the outcome of the first independence referendum had been an unequivocal endorsement of the union, we wouldn’t be talking about a second referendum.

It is in the light of these crucial points that we must appreciate and assess the advice from Ian Dommett and Dr Iain Black.

It seems like a statement of the obvious to say that you should have your campaign ready before you launch. The talk of organisation and structure and plans has the ring of good sense to it. But, sensible as this counsel may be, it is not the whole story. Much of the strength of the Yes campaign lay in the fact that it was highly organic. It wasn’t organised in any formal sense. It had no structure. There was no overarching plan.

While this may be seen as a weakness in terms of a centrally managed marketing campaign, it meant that the Yes movement was extremely flexible and responsive at a granular level that no top-down organisation could hope to reach. This doesn’t mean that the Yes campaign was disorganised. Only that organisation was an emergent property of a disparate network of diverse organisations all with a common cause.

It worked. And, while looking to address any weaknesses in the previous campaign, we should be wary of discarding things that worked. We must at all costs avoid any notion that we can synthesise the organic nature of the original Yes movement in the context of a more formally organised campaign. The grassroots Yes movement had/has untold value. Let’s not carelessly forfeit that in the well-intentioned pursuit of greater centralised control.

The campaign must be both social and political. While seeking to take the Yes message to people in ‘social’ campaign, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is politics at its most basic. There is nothing more fundamental to democratic politics than the constitution. We need to be honest with voters. We should not be seen to be misrepresenting the nature of the decision they are being asked to make.

Neither should we be reticent about spelling out the crucial role of the SNP as the de facto political arm of the independence movement. We do not aid that movement by feeding a narrative which portrays the political nature of the campaign as unfortunate and distasteful; or the recourse to party politics as something that can be avoided.

While celebrating the fact that the independence movement is vastly wider than the confines of any one political party, we must be forthright in explicitly acknowledging the fact that the campaign to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status cannot succeed without the SNP – not on any acceptable time-scale.

You can be non-SNP and pro-independence; but you can’t be anti-SNP and pro-independence. If people are uncomfortable with this, then it’s just too bad. because that is the immutable political reality of our situation.

None of which means that the SNP administration should be immune from criticism. It means only that independence supporters who criticise the administration’s policies and actions should be mindful that anything which undermines the party at this time may also have a negative impact on the chances of success in the independence referendum. How they handle the dilemma is a matter for every individual. But, just as it is wrong-headed to suppose that there is no political dimension to the independence campaign, it would be foolish to pretend that there is no dilemma.

There isn’t a ‘no change’ side. If there is one lesson to be taken from the first referendum campaign – regardless of how you voted – it is that change will happen regardless. It is safe to say that all of the assurances of continuity and certainty and security offered by Better Together/Project Fear turned out to be completely worthless.

It is not a choice between change and no change. It is a choice of who steers that change. It is a choice between having that change influenced by a government elected by the people of Scotland to address their aspirations, needs and priorities, and leaving matters in the hands of a Westminster elite that is, at best, indifferent to those aspirations, needs and priorities or, at worst, seriously ill-disposed towards them.

One valid criticism of the Yes campaign during the first referendum campaign is that it was overly defensive. This is not a criticism of the the way the negativities of Better Together/Project Fear were rebutted. These were countered very effectively – even if this was not adequately conveyed to the public (see next section). The problem was that, in its unquestionably admirable determination to be always positive, the Yes campaign didn’t go on the attack often enough or with sufficient aggression.

It is claimed that we change No voters to Yes voters by persuading them of the worth of our case. But it is at least as important that No voters are induced to question the assumptions and preconceptions which make them No voters in the first place. This may involve suggesting to these people that they are wrong. That their assumptions and preconceptions are mistaken. If we are constrained by some misguided fear of being perceived as discourteous or disrespectful, they we reduce our chances of success.

We cannot rely on “supportive media”. The BBC is the voice of the British establishment. Scotland’s independence movement is perceived as an existential threat to the British establishment. What is true of the BBC is, to a lesser extent or in a modified way, true of the rest of the British mainstream media. The independence case is never going to get a fair hearing in the media.

We would be well-advised to assume that the limited appeal of “commercial sense” has been fully addressed by The National and Sunday Herald, along with the odd pro-independence columnist afforded a bit of space elsewhere. It would be sensible to proceed on the basis that the force of commercial interest has now come up against the barrier of entrenched ideology. There will be little or no further movement in the direction of fair representation in the mainstream media for the independence cause.

Which doesn’t mean that we should simply give up. There is much that could be achieved with a campaign of letter writing, for example. But we would do well to accept that alternative media is going to be even more crucial to the Yes side in the next referendum campaign than it was in the first. We should be striving to develop online resources in such a way as to meet the challenge of a predominantly hostile traditional media. In hard numerical terms, the yes campaign is already well ahead. It needs to improve in terms of penetration and authority. It must reach a wider audience and achieve standards of content and presentation such as to inspire confidence in the message.

In this way we may hope to counter the “negative myths” that will surely continue to be peddled by the mainstream media, as well as to reinforce those “positive truths” which tend to be disadvantaged in the market place of ideas.

Let’s have more and better writing about independence. And let’s ensure that the best is shared far and wide.

There is no arguing with the claim that “nothing beats face-to-face conversations”. I would merely caution against any notion that this means the Yes campaign must think small. Human-scale campaigning was proven to be effective in the first referendum campaign. But there is still a place for the big set-piece event. Like it or not, size, visibility and ubiquity equate with credibility in the public perception. It is difficult to maintain the pretence that the independence campaign is “fringe” when half the people you see on the street are wearing a ‘Yes’ badge and the web is littered with images and videos of the most recent event involving many thousands of Yes supporters.

The foregoing is intended as constructive commentary on the advice offered by Ian Dommett and Dr Iain Black; whose expertise and specialist know-how I gladly acknowledge. I would only add that I think it may be a mistake to think in terms of a single unified Yes organisation. It may be more realistic to anticipate a three-stranded campaign involving the SNP; the formal Yes campaign; and the grassroots Yes movement.

It is not necessary that these strands should come under a common control. In fact, it’s far better that they don’t, as they represent quite different approaches to campaigning. What is essential is that no part of this triumvirate work against the others – as happened all to commonly in the first referendum campaign.
It is frequently stated that the strength of the Yes movement lies in its diversity. But the strength comes, not form the diversity, but from the shared commitment to a common cause.

If I were to suggest just one lesson that the Yes campaign must learn if we are to win the coming independence referendum, it is that we are many voices with but one message.

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15 thoughts on “Getting it right

  1. Sandy

    Good points all. I would also like to see the Yes2 movement being more ‘robust’ (I hesitate to use the word ‘aggressive’). Every unionist speaker that makes a threat or a promise should be tackled with a ‘you said that last time and it turned out to be wrong’. Any that supported Brexit should be reminded of their enthusiasm for ‘taking back control’ from distant, unelected governance.

    I know the SNP have to be seen as a responsible, law abiding political party of government. However, the wider Yes2 campaign should not be so restrained. Maybe Ghandi style civil disobedience is a step too far but maybe some more direct action would be appropriate. I’d suggest a mass campaign of TV licence non payment as a start, to highlight how untrustworthy the Bbc is, even to those who still trust it.

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      This is why I say that Yes2 needs three distinct strands –

      ~ The SNP to be the political arm working on the practicalities of securing independence from within the British political system.

      ~ The official Yes2 organisation to address the more general policy issues from the widest possible perspective.

      ~ The grassroots Yes2 movement to do the foot-slogging work on behalf of both the SNP and the official Yes2 organisation whilst also being the “robust” part of the campaign, active on the streets and online in ways that are not constrained by the disciplines that necessarily affect the other two strands.

      I stress again that the really important thing is that these different strands, whilst each doing their own thing, don’t work against one another. Too commonly in the first referendum campaign we had, for example, the pro-independence left indulging in quite pointless anti-SNP rhetoric that echoed the latest unionist propaganda in the media. Nit pointless in party political terms. But utterly counterproductive in terms of the larger and prior objective of independence.

  2. Christopher Neill

    The bit I have BIG issues on is the idea of the grassroots doing “… the foot-slogging work on behalf of both the SNP and the official Yes2 organisation ”

    The grassroots are just that, and not to be used as agents of anyone. Another issue I have is that the Ref should not be a vote of confidence in the SNP. There are people who are pro Indy who would never vote SNP.

    Finally there are a whole list of bread and btter issues which need addressing. Pensions was one that cropped up last time. There was an answer of sorts buried in the White Paper, but that was really badly written and presented. Even things like phone roving charges cropped up on the doorstep, and passport issuing. These are not in themselves major but they need addressing, Scotland needs to be seen as a State ready to fnction fairly quickly. A vague aspiration is not enough, show that the issues have been thought through and inspire some confidence.

    1. ronnie anderson

      Christopher Neil ] There are people who are pro Indy who would never vote SNP. ] As a Grassroots activist I cant understand your comment , they,re is no other Political Party who can secure Independence other than SNP I would question anyones commitment to the cause of Independence who hold those views. We have seen what happens with devicive political party’s ( under the guise of Indy supporters) ie Rise / Solidarity in IndyRef 2014,

    2. Peter A Bell Post author

      Who do you imagine delivers all those leaflets and does all that canvassing if not the foot-soldiers who make up the grassroots campaign? That is a critical part of their role. We can’t afford to be naive about the way political campaigns work.

      We certainly can’t afford the kind of naivety that rejects the idea of the referendum as a vote of confidence in the SNP. I really wish people would think for a moment before coming out with such nonsense. Who do you imagine is going to be leading the negotiations on Scotland’s behalf after a Yes vote? How can we expect the Scottish Government to do that absent a vote of confidence from the people of Scotland?

      Stop petting your pink unicorn for a moment and attend to political reality. If a Yes vote isn’t a mandate for an SNP administration to sue for independence from the UK, then it is TOTALLY MEANINGLESS! And before you get on your hind legs and start banging on about how “it’s not all about the SNP”, prepare to answer the question about who else is going to do the job. If you are going to reject the SNP as the political arm of the independence movement, then get ready for some very embarrassing questions about what the alternative might be. Or how the practicalities of moving to independence might be addressed without a political agency.

      You are correct to say that “Scotland needs to be seen as a State ready to function”. What you have to realise is that this is crucially dependent on us being totally realistic about the way things work. Otherwise, we risk being perceived as woolly-minded dreamers of the kind who might imagine that independence could be achieved without giving a vote of confidence to the politicians who are expected to ensure that our democratic will is honoured.

  3. Dorothy Bruce

    In my new novel ‘Waiting for Change’ I use a quote from Barack Obama which was appropriate for the book and is equally important for the next indyref.

    “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
    (Senator Barack Obama’s speech to supporters in Chicago after the nominating contests on 5th February 2008.)

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      I’m all for inspirational thoughts. And the quote from Barack Obama certainly falls into that category. But I would also caution that inspiration alone doesn’t achieve anything. It may provide the motivation, but we must also be mindful of the practical steps which must be taken in order to make change happen. Or, to be more precise, to shape and influence change as it happens.

  4. Jim Arnott

    The one thing that is needed above all else for an independent Scotand is a very positive vision of a country that will be at peace with itself, it’s neighbours and the wider world. Scots need to feel what it would be like to live in such a country.

  5. Fiona Grahame

    I found the ‘advice’ given in The National by the 2 commentators highly patronising to people who managed to get a 45% Yes vote in an atmosphere of fear and misinformation. Many of us are campaigners with decades of experience infused with the energy of recruits new to political activism. I am feeling extremely positive about the Yes Movement. The area I live in is hugely Unionist but since the Brexit vote there has been a considerable shift in opinion. We are not waiting on the SNP to make up its mind about launching an independence campaign we are out there doing it, like many thousands of others in the Yes Movement. We keep our message positive but clear.

  6. Malcolm

    Nail on the head fiona . All I have heard from the snp sad to say is empty rhetoric since the ref. Trouble is they showed no interest in the grassroots movement at all. What do these celeb politicians think they want bread buttered on both sides. Time they listened instead of lining their own pockets .

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      Evidently, you either neglected to read or failed to comprehend the point about a campaign of three strands. The SNP has one role, the grassroots campaign has another. And the “official” Yes campaign is different again. Each has to play its part. What we must avoid is the different strands undermining one another. Which is precisely what you are doing. And quite pointlessly. Because you are attacking the SNP for being precisely what it needs to be if it is to fulfil its role. And for not being something that it can’t be.

      Stay focused on the common objective. And if you can’t be supportive of the other strands in the campaign as they do their thing, then at least try to avoid sabotaging their efforts.

  7. ronnie anderson

    Peter I have been shouting out about this recognition of the Grassroots Movement from the SNP since long & weary, at last someone who does recognise Grassroots Tommy Shepard at his campain for Deputy Leadership launch ,as he acknoledged it should be a Bottom up campain NOT a Top down campain. The MPs & MSPs should be getting out there amoungst the Grassroots , showing there support at Rally’s/Demos.

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      My point, which you seem to have missed, is that it cannot be a single, homogeneous campaign at all. Trying to shoehorn the three separate strands into the same kind of campaigning tactics only creates unnecessary and corrosive tensions.

      The politicians can’t be part of the grassroots AND be fully effective as politicians. Each strand of the campaign needs to be in touch with and supportive of the others, but always recognising that the others have something different to contribute to the overall campaign. Or that they contribute in different ways.

      We have to be grown up about it and accept that the (SNP) politicians are necessary. And that they have to operate in a certain way because, like it or not, they have to function within a British political system which only recognises and responds to brute political power.

  8. Alan Crerar

    The relentless positiveness and ‘niceness’ of the Indy1 campaign was why we lost it at the very end. It is also why the Indy movement has been such a success since. I believe that was its greatest strength and will win the rematch with ease.

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