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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Of divides and loyalties

SNP depute leader Keith Brown says the poll showed Labour could not stop the Tories in Scotland. But, in truth, British Labour in Scotland has no real interest in stopping the Tories in Scotland. Their imperatives are –

  • to punish the SNP and anybody who votes for them
  • to regain the status they consider theirs by right
  • to reassert the British parties’ control of the Scottish Parliament

The first imperative is spiteful. The second is self-serving. The third is treacherous. Petty, partisan and perfidious. We could be describing any of the British parties currently squatting in Scotland’s Parliament.

The problem for British pollsters and the British analysts who analyse their polls and the British commentators who comment on both the polls and the analysis, is that the British two-party context is no longer relevant in Scotland. Regarding Scotland’s politics through the prism of the British political system became inappropriate in 1999, when the Scottish Parliament reconvened. Increasingly so ever since. But British pundits don’t seem to have realised this yet. And the British media, for the most part, stubbornly denies that there is a distinctive Scottish politics.

British chatterers’ and British scribblers’ first instinct is to regard Labour/Left versus Tory/Right as the default divide in all ‘domestic’ politics. I’m not sure to what extent this is even true in England these days. It certainly isn’t applicable in Scotland. The defining divide in Scottish politics is constitutional. It is Nationalist versus Unionist.

Not that this excludes or ignores the many other divisions in society which are supposed to be managed by the democratic process. It’s just that the constitutional divide has come to encompass things like class and ideology. In one sense, this makes Scottish politics simpler – because, crudely speaking, everything ultimately boils down the constitutional issue. In another sense, it makes Scottish politics more complicated because the constitutional issue is an additional element which must be considered. Or should be considered.

All too often, it isn’t. Analysts and commentators coming at Scotland’s politics from within the bubble of the metropolitan cosy consensus inevitably find it difficult to take account of the fact that what they regard as ‘the Labour vote’ is at least as likely to be the ‘Tory vote’ on account of the constitutional divide. They find it difficult to take account of this only if they even realise that it is a real phenomenon.

And where these British analysts and commentators do acknowledge that the dividing line between British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) and the British Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS) is somewhat blurred, they tend to talk in terms of ‘tactical voting’. It is NOT tactical voting.

When BLiS voters put their cross next to a BCUPS candidate or party – or, to a lesser extent, vice versa – they like to call it ‘tactical voting’ because this puts a sheen of rationality on a choice made solely on the basis of emotional and often fervent loyalty. Loyalty to the British state. Fealty to the British ruling elites. Devotion to the emblem of British Nationalism.

All of which can be a cause of confusion and consternation to those British pollsters and British analysts and British commentators who share these loyalties so innately and deeply that it is extremely problematic for them to conceive of their being alternative loyalties and a defining political divide between the two.

We have all heard British pundits react with incomprehension when confronted by Scotland’s independence movement. They simply can’t grasp; or can’t take seriously, the proposition that there may be significant numbers of people in their imagined British nation who owe their loyalty to something other than the British state, the British ruling elites and the Union flag.

They simply don’t get that British Labour in Scotland has no real interest in stopping the Tories because they share a loyalty that overrides mere partisan interest. They don’t fully understand that politics in Scotland is an existential battle. Either Scotland survives, or the British establishment prevails. Those are the options. That is the choice facing Scotland’s people. It is my passionate hope that most voters will choose Scotland.


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Preparing for a pillow fight

There are two fallacies in this article about Progress Scotland which, because they are so enthusiastically embraced by so many in the Yes movement, drive me to despair.

Firstly, there is the fallacy of ‘clarity’ about Brexit. The one thing that can never come out of the Brexit mess is clarity. The UK’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world will be in a state of turbulent flux for many years. Probably many decades. Nothing useful can be known about it. As evidenced by the list provided.

But by the end of April the Brexit fog should have lifted to some extent anyway. Voters should know if the UK has left the EU, and if it has crashed out without a deal or left with May’s deal, perhaps with a tweak to the political declaration (the non legally binding part of the agreement she struck with the EU).

What part of that makes the slightest difference to the fact that Scotland voted against Brexit? What difference does any of it make to the fact that our democratic choice was treated with utter contempt by the British state? What difference does it make to the fact that this contempt is not only facilitated by the Union, but rendered inevitable by it?

The worrying thing about the whole Progress Scotland thing is that the entire project appears to be founded on the assumption that the Scottish Government will not use the mandate that it has. It assumes that the Scottish Government will do nothing to prevent Scotland being dragged out of the EU against the will of the people. It assumes that the Scottish Government will fail in its solemn duty to defend Scotland’s interests. And fail catastrophically.

A corollary of all this is that the Scottish Government is content that Scotland should continue to be treated with contempt ‘for the time being’. Certainly, there is no indication that the Scottish Government intends to do anything to change this situation.

The second fallacy is the notion that there is some mystical form of words by which the ‘positive case for independence’ will be made irresistible to those as yet unpersuaded. How can there possibly be a “fresh case for Yes”? Even ignoring all the campaigning that went before, since at least 2012 countless groups and organisations have been presenting their own ‘vision’ of independence. Over a period of around seven years, every possible formulation of the independence ‘message’ has been presented.

Indeed, this was a large part of the reason the Yes campaign was less effective than it should have been. There was no single, clear, concise campaign message. There were countless different messages. The campaign was diffuse, vague and confusing – if not actually confused. The campaign had thrust, but no sharp point. As I have said before, we took a pillow to a sword fight.

Independence is not a complex concept. So why are people trying to make it so? Who benefits from this unnecessary complexity? Our political leaders and others in a position to influence the Yes campaign strategy are falling once again into the trap of taking on an obligation to answer any and all questions posed by those resolved to preserve the Union at any cost. They are, at least tacitly, accepting the proposition that it is only when all these questions have been answered satisfactorily that Scotland will qualify for dependence.

The idiocy of this should be obvious. In the first place, there is no limit to the questions that can be posed. Once you accept that you have to explain yourself, the demand for further explanation is potentially infinite. And the explanations can never be satisfactory when the ones asserting the role of ultimate arbiters are the ones who are resolve to preserve the Union at any cost.

Advocates of the ‘pillow’ strategy will protest that it is not those resolved to preserve the Union at any cost who are being addressed. They will insist that it is ‘soft Nos’, or some such elusively defined group. But this is British politics. What matters is not reality, but perception. And who controls the overwhelmingly powerful machinery for manipulating perceptions? Why! It’s those resolved to… you know the rest. If no other lesson is drawn from the 2014 referendum campaign could it please at least be the fact that it doesn’t matter how often or how thoroughly or how comprehensively or even how convincingly questions are answered and/or explanations provided, the British state’s propaganda apparatus will endure the general perception that no satisfactory answers or explanations have been forthcoming. And if at any time it seems that the answers and explanations provided might gain some traction on the terrain of public opinion, the British state’s propaganda apparatus will move, not just the goalposts, but the entire bloody pitch!

There are, in fact, a multitude of lessons to be learned from the 2014 referendum campaign. I despair, not least, because it looks like all of those lessons are being ignored in favour of airy-fairy notions of a ‘fresh case for Yes’ or promised ‘clarity’ or an ‘optimal time’ out there somewhere that will come to us if we just wait long enough.


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Talking good! Kettling bad!

I can’t say I find anything particularly disturbing about Police Liaison Officers (PLO) contacting event organisers. Police Scotland’s role involves facilitating lawful public demonstrations and protecting those participating. If, as seems to be the case, PLOs are merely seeking information about upcoming events, what possible harm is there? The more event organisers and Police Scotland talk to one another, the better.

As we know from the All Under One Banner marches, close cooperation between Police Scotland and the organisers has helped to ensure that these events go off without any trouble.

It’s always healthy to be slightly suspicious of the authorities. But it’s far from healthy to let this descend into paranoia. If folk want to make a fuss about police methods, they should object loud and long to the practice of ‘kettling‘; which is nothing more than unlawful detention. Police Scotland needs to be made aware of the extent to which this practice anger and alienates members of the public who would otherwise be appreciative and supportive of their service.

I have only ever experienced ‘kettling’ once. And then only briefly. But I really didn’t like the way it made me feel – despite the fact that I understood why it was being done. Even the memory of it continues to disturb me. I’m not sure Police Scotland is taking due account of the impact this practice has on the law-abiding people who are subjected to a form of imprisonment without cause or explanation.

Since I’m on the subject, I’ll also point out that ‘kettling’ is a very lazy and ineffective and inefficient form of policing. Lazy, because it is policing people instead of crime. Ineffective, because the people who are likely to be disruptive are familiar with police procedures and absent themselves as soon as they see preparations being made for ‘kettling’. Inefficient because it requires large numbers of officers to do nothing other than aggravate peaceful demonstrators while potential trouble-makers are long gone.

Police Scotland should keep talking to event organisers. But they need a rethink on ‘kettling’.


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Scotland the disappeared!

I came across something the other day which some of you may find interesting. You’ll recall the fuss there was about the British government document(s) regarding Brexit which pointedly failed to mention Scotland. Then, last November there was that Andy Critchlow article in the Telegraph titled ‘North Sea oil can still be the bargaining chip we need‘, which also omitted any reference to Scotland.

I’ve stumbled upon another one!

It’s an article in The Guardian called ‘Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?’. Written by Alex Perry and based on an interview with National Crime Agency boss Lynne Owens, it too manages to discuss at great length the issue of organised crime “in the UK” without once mentioning Scotland. There are lots of references to ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ as well as a couple of mentions of ‘England & Wales’. But not so much as a hint that Scotland even exists. Which is extremely odd given one of the main themes of the article.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just another ill-informed, under-educated, narrow-minded, shallow-thinking, London-based hack exhibiting all the dumb parochialism we’ve come to expect from that hapless breed. You might quite reasonable suppose the fool guilty of no more than the usual conflating of England with UK. But there’s evidently more too it than that. Because the article repeatedly touches on the topic of how “fragmented” the police service is in England and Wales. Here’s an example.

An ancient and fragmented structure of 43 English and Welsh county forces, some of which date back 190 years, had left Britain with little to no “capability to respond” to modern, global criminals.

Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?

This is one of several similar comments based on what appears to be a matter of particular concern to Lynne Owens. So, given that this “fragmented” structure is such a major focus of the article, how do we explain the absence of any reference to the sole example in the UK of a unified police service – Police Scotland? How is it possible for a professional journalist to so totally miss something so relevant to what he is writing about.

Especially given other similar instances, it is increasingly difficult to avoid concluding that the omission is deliberate. Scotland is being ‘disappeared’.


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