There are two strands of opinion within the Yes movement which I have been particularly critical of over the past few months. I call them ‘The Postponers’ and ‘The Persuaders’.
(I interrupt myself at this point to deal with those who, having read that opening sentence, are already poised over their keyboards ready to pound out some pompous diatribe denouncing the appalling practice of ‘labelling’. My advice to these people is that, instead of pestering me with their inane drivel, they bugger off over to Twitter and start a campaign to have all the nouns removed from dictionaries. #DownWithNouns)
Where was I? Oh yes! I have dealt with ‘The Postponers’ often and at length. Although I have touched on the need for a new mindset and a different attitude as we approach the new referendum, there still needs to be some discussion about the way we conduct the Yes campaign this time. The story of a former Tory councillor having declared her support for independence is an ideal hook on which to hang some remarks about ‘The Persuaders’ and their thinking on the matter.
‘The Persuaders’ is a shorthand term for those who insist that the way to win the new referendum is to gently and delicately woo ‘soft No voters’ with the ‘positive case for independence’. According to this theory, we shall lure these wavering No voters by presenting them with a sufficiently appealing, but always realistic, vision of an independent Scotland. We will win them over by telling them believable tales of economic prosperity illustrated with colourful graphs and charts and peppered with impressive statistics.
If ‘The Persuaders’ have it right, we will start the necessary thousands on that journey from No to Yes by painting a picture of independent Scotland as an enlightened and socially progressive place where inequality and injustice are at least addressed and alleviated by public policy rather than being engendered and exacerbated by it.
Crucially, ‘The Persuaders’ insist that we must never so much as hint at the idea of No voters having got it wrong in 2014. We must assiduously eschew the slightest suggestion that they are in any way responsible for the consequences of their choice. We must never, by word or gesture, hint at the notion that voting No was a mistake. Whatever repercussions it entailed, voting No was a perfectly valid choice. Mentioning the ready availability of information which would have prompted a different choice is taboo. As is any reference to how obviously false the No prospectus was.
No voters effectively gave the British political elite a blank mandate and invited them to fill it in with whatever suited their British Nationalist agenda. They gave the British state licence to do what they pleased with Scotland. And that licence has been used with great relish to our severe detriment. But we are prevailed upon by ‘The Persuaders’ to studiously avoid making any connection between that No vote and everything that has ensued – from EVEL to Brexit to the ‘power-grab’ and the accelerating erosion of Scotland’s democracy.
‘The Persuaders’ have this unshakeable conviction that all the independence campaign needs in order to win is a better message. A more positive message. A brighter, shinier, glossier message. They are driven by the belief that there exists somewhere a form of words which will change minds in the way that a magic spell might transform a frog into a prince.
There is a problem with this theory. We’ve already done all that. We’ve done every conceivable Yes message – and a few barely conceivable ones. We’ve done the relentlessly positive campaign. Independence is not a complex idea. There are only so many ways that such a fundamentally simple concept can be described or explained. Eventually, the plethora of different descriptions and explanations becomes confusing and meaningless. The effort to find the sharpest and most effective message leads only to a message which is diffuse and vague and devoid of any impact.
The 50% of voters who are already Yes represents pretty much everybody who either doesn’t need any persuasion or has already been persuaded by the tactics of the 2014 Yes campaign. The other 50% is pretty much entirely made up of people who either can’t or won’t be persuaded by any positive message no matter how slick it is. If they were going to be persuaded by that positive vision of independence it would have happened by now. The Yes movement has been offering them that message for more than six years. ‘The Persuaders’ have convinced themselves that it is only a matter of time – and constant repetition – before the message takes effect. How much time will it take? How much time do we have? ‘The Persuaders’ are adamant that the positive independence message needs to be refined just a little bit more and it will become the alchemical formula by which the base metal of No will be transmuted into the gold of Yes.
It is not going to happen.
Ashley Graczyk’s account of how she came to support the independence offers a clue to a more promising strategy. If Ms Graczyk is to be believed – and I find no reason to doubt her – she was prompted to reconsider her position on the constitutional issue, not by the persuasive power of a positive vision, but by a dawning awareness of the negative impact that the Union has on Scotland. Listen to what she says,
I came to the realisation that to preserve and protect the values we have in Scotland we cannot have policies imposed on us from Westminster that jar with the kind of Scotland we are trying to build. So simply, we need independence.
It wasn’t the prospect of a future independent Scotland that persuaded her. It was the reality of the present-day UK.
This tells us how we should approach the new referendum campaign. Of the 50% that polls indicate (probably wrongly) are still No around 20 points can be written off as hard-line Unionists and ideological British Nationalists who would rather burn on the bonfire of the British state than bask in the warm glow of an independent Scotland. Another 20 points can be disregarded, but not discounted. These are the ranks of the disengaged and the resolutely apathetic. We shall return to them.
The final ten points represents the prime target of the Yes campaign. These are the people who are mistakenly identified by ‘The Persuaders’ as ‘soft Nos’ who can be won over by addressing their doubts about independence. But, as pointed out earlier, all the evidence indicates that these doubts have long been impervious to the unrelenting blandishments of determinedly positive Yes campaigners. There simply is no reason to suppose that this is going to change. In place of reason, ‘The Persuaders’ have amassed huge stocks of hope – almost all of it forlorn.
Those ‘soft Nos’ would be more usefully regarded as people who are entertaining doubts about the Union. People like Ashley Graczyk. People whose inertia will be overcome, not by a promise, but by a protest. The way to win these people over is to feed their doubts about the Union. To play upon their uncertainty by making a powerful but honest case against the Union. We have ample ammunition. We simply have to overcome our reluctance to use it. We have to rid ourselves of our addiction to the sense of superiority which comes with being positive.
There is no disgrace or dishonour in fighting against something if it is wrong. The Union is wrong. It is wrong for Scotland. It is arguably wrong for all of the people of these islands. So let’s put an end to it. Then we can devise something better.
Finally, I said we’d get back to the alienated and apathetic who, in my admittedly oversimplified map of Scotland’s electorate, make up that 20% between the wavering Unionists – defined as people who have not yet learned to question the Union – and the entrenched British Nationalists – defined as people who insist that the Union must never be questioned. While the waverers make up the 10 points that would be sufficient to give Yes a conclusive victory, it is worth noting that the strategy of mounting a hard anti-Union campaign is more likely to reach the alienated and apathetic than any amount of positive campaigning for independence.
Anger is a more effective antidote to apathy than aspiration. You won’t sell independence to people who are so disengaged as to be deaf to any entreaties. But you just might rouse a few of these people from their apathetic somnolence if you can make them angry. If they cannot be roused to anger at all it just might be by a campaign pointing out the iniquities of the British state. By targeting those wavering Unionists with an anti-Union campaign, we might actually engage with some of those who suppose they can opt out of politics.
Making a positive case for independence is essential. But it is clearly not enough. We need something extra. There really is no way to further enhance the Yes message. We need to augment the campaign for independence with a campaign against the Union. A campaign to dissolve the Union.
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