With all due respect to Dr Iain Black, I think he was very wise to emphasise that he “makes no claims about how generalisable” his ‘findings’ are. I strongly suspect that his research may not have been measuring what he intended. What his findings represent is less an impression of voters’ attitudes and more a gauge of the success of the anti-independence propaganda campaign.
My doubts about the usefulness of Dr Black’s research as a measure of public feeling on the constitutional issue arises in part from my own experience of talking to people. Granted, these conversations take place outside the confines of an academically approved ‘focus group’. One might even say that they take place in real life. I’m not sure to what extent the absence of a formal setting totally invalidates my own experience. What I do know is that they contrast markedly with Dr Black’s findings.
Perhaps there’s some kind of observer effect. Maybe some form of uncertainty principle applies. Opinions and attitudes could be affected by the questions being asked. Or even by the fact that the subjects are being quizzed by a researcher in the context of a scientific study. One thing I remember well from my regretfully incomplete sojourn into the study of sociology and psychology is that attitudes are not fixed. They are fluid. They are subject to a plethora of influences, such as peer pressure and, perhaps particularly, the incessant background drone of the mass media.
It would be a grave mistake to act upon these conclusions as if they were factual. Like everything else that is presented to us via the print and broadcast media, this research should be questioned. It’s safe to assume that Dr Black himself would happily concede this. In fact, he has already done so.
We should, for example, wonder about the inherent contradiction of claiming to be “overwhelmed” by political activity while simultaneously demanding “more information and facts”. And those of us who were paying attention during the first independence referendum campaign will be somewhat aghast at the claim that voters didn’t get enough information and facts from the Yes campaign last time. What this response reflects is, not the reality of the Yes campaign, but the effects of the media’s constant repetition of the ‘unanswered questions’ line.
The sole and entire purpose of Better Together/Project Fear was to generate doubt and create confusion. It was their success in this which tipped the scales on polling day. It didn’t matter how often or how comprehensively questions were answered, the media still claimed they were unanswered. To the extent that the media has a democratic responsibility to help voters make informed decisions, they failed abysmally.
If the people in these focus groups really do want information and facts, why are they only questioning the pro-independence side? Why are they not interrogating the anti-independence propaganda? This too can be put down to the pernicious influence of media which were, and remain, almost universally committed to preserving the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. The structures within which, like the British political parties they operate. The structures upon which they and the rest of the British establishment depend.
People don’t question the Union because they have been ‘taught’ that the Union is a normal arrangement. They have been led to believe that ‘British’ is the standard against which all else is measured. They don’t challenge the status quo because they are not equipped to do so. To the not inconsiderable extent that people rely on the media, they have not been armed with the necessary questions. They have been overwhelmed with questions designed to undermine their confidence in themselves and their country. They have never been prompted to query the Union.
Voltaire observed that “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” The British state’s propaganda machine made people believe the absurd proposition that the Union is the ideal arrangement for Scotland because we are too wee, too poor and too stupid to govern ourselves. British Nationalists will protest that nobody in their ranks has ever used these words. That may be so. But it is still the essence of the Unionist message. It may be resorting to overblown rhetoric to call the No vote an “atrocity”. But who, with the benefit of hindsight, can now deny that it was an atrocious choice.
Dr Black’s findings might be open to dispute, but that doesn’t mean there are no lessons to be taken from his research. Arguably, the most valuable lesson is that the Yes movement has to stop being led by the British media. We must create our own narrative, rather than conceding that capacity to the agents and instruments of established power.
We should not simply accept as fact that people are “overwhelmed” and respond by backing off – as the British Nationalists want us to do. We should, instead, be driving home the message that politics is personal. It matters to everybody. We should be encouraging engagement and participation as a counter to the British state’s efforts to promote alienation and detachment.
We should not accept that the Union is beyond challenge. We should be challenging it. We should be vigorously interrogating those who assert the primacy of the Union and the efficacy of the existing constitutional arrangement. We must expose the false prospectus on which the No vote was sold.
We should be demanding information and fact from British Nationalists. If doubt was Project Fear’s main weapon, we should turn that weapon against them. If they can demand to know what will be the price of a first class postage stamp two decades after independence, then surely voters also need to know what the price will be twenty years hence in Scotland remains in the Union. We urgently need to dispel the notion that the first of these questions is perfectly sensible and valid whilst the second is ridiculous and unnecessary.
We must not buckle in the face of the British state’s efforts to delegitimise the Scottish Parliament; deny the mandate held by the Scottish Government; and undermine confidence in Scotland’s public services and democratic institutions.
Too many in the Yes movement are happy to parrot the narrative provided by the British media. There is a corrosive tendency to respond to criticism by retreating from whatever is being attacked. Far too many in the Yes movement either don’t realise or refuse to accept that the British establishment is attacking these things precisely because they are vital to both the independence project and the progressive agenda.
Some in the Yes movement need to learn that, when the British parties and their accomplices in the media attack Nicola Sturgeon and/or the SNP administration they should not see this as an opportunity to flaunt their non-SNP credentials, but realise that it is in their best interests to defend, insofar as they are able, Scotland’s First Minister and the Scottish Government. Or, at the very least, to desist from joining in the attack.
What I take from Dr Black’s research is not so much the failure of the Yes campaign as the success of the British propaganda machine. The research itself seems to have been influenced by the British media narrative. It appears to start from the assumption that the Yes movement must look inward to find and address its own failings. It is my contention that we’ve already done too much of that. Political campaigning is not about pandering to public attitudes. It is about changing those attitudes. It is about challenging preconceptions and prejudices. It is time now to look outward to identify and exploit the weaknesses of British Nationalist ideology. It is time for the Yes worm to turn. It’s time to go on the attack.Views: 4302
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