12 months into the official independence campaign, if the mainstream media is to be believed the Yes Scotland campaign isn’t doing too well. On the few occasions when the organisation isn’t being assumed to be merely a synonym for “the SNP”, it’s to allow some comment to the effect that they are “on the back foot” or has suffered another “setback” of some kind.
To be fair, it’s not only the media who have been critical. Many committed independence supporters have expressed mixed feelings about the official Yes campaign, usually along the lines of it not being proactive enough or sufficiently vigorous is dealing with this or that. Is such criticism justified? Are the media offering a fair analysis of Yes Scotland’s management of the campaign?
One year on from launch Yes Scotland has built up a formidable campaigning force with more than 170 local Yes groups the length and breadth of Scotland, and some 15 sectoral groups for young people, women, trade unionists etc. (The No camp, by contrast, has been repeatedly caught out massively exaggerating its grassroots strength, and is also plagued by “unofficial” groups like the sectarian right-wing “Better Together Western Isles”, whose Facebook page was only recently deleted.)
The Yes groups are not idle. Over the course of any week there are thousands of people out canvassing, leafleting, manning street stalls and holding public meetings. Yes campaigners totally dominate the social media and, to an only slightly lesser extent, the blogging scene. It would be hard to contest that it represented the largest grassroots political campaign in Scotland’s history (the 1999 devolution campaign having been largely a creature of politics).
What remains to be explained is the perception that Yes Scotland is “failing” – both in some absolute sense and also relative to Better Together. In part, this is because the mainstream media continues to portray the independence campaign as being led by the SNP. “Better Together” is generally acknowledged as the official anti-independence campaign, but Yes Scotland seldom is.
There’s also a tendency to base all judgements about the success of the two campaigns on a very simplistic reading of polling results. What this means is that “Better Together” gets unearned credit for the natural inertia that would still exist if they did nothing at all.
Yes Scotland, on the other hand, gets no credit for its success in achieving what it actually aimed to do in the early stages of the campaign, which was to set out the fundamentals of the issues and arguments and get people thinking and talking about the constitutional question. In that at least, there can be little disputing its success.
There’s also a glaring double standard in the media’s coverage. When someone representing Yes Scotland says something that diverges in some respect from the latest policy pronouncements of Alex Salmond or John Swinney it’s pounced upon hungrily by commentators unable to think in terms other than the traditional party-political contest. these pundits portray such differences as damaging conflict, but rarely (if ever) report differences between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems as evidence of division in the anti-independence movement.
Yet as more and more people are encouraged by the openness of the framework generated by Yes Scotland, so the horizons of general political debate are broadened. Increasingly enthused by the possibilities and potential of independence, Scotland’s political scene has become more active and rich than it has been in decades, as demonstrated by the near-overnight success of groups as diverse as the Radical Independence Conference and Business For Scotland.
There’s a palpable, growing sense that nothing is off the table. That anything is up for discussion. That meaningful progressive change is achievable. Swathes of thinking on social and economic policy that had long been relegated to the wilderness of fringe politics are now finding a niche in what might be termed the “real” referendum debate.
Yes Scotland may not yet have won the referendum. But, with sixteen months still to go, they have made massive – and almost certainly irreversible – strides towards creating the conditions in which it can be won.
A longer version of this article can be found on Peter’s website.