As we’ve already noted today, those who don’t currently support independence can be split into two groups: those who can be persuaded to support it, and those who can’t.
For the purposes of winning the referendum it’s important to be able to tell the difference between the two, so as to avoid wasting time trying to convert the non-convertible, and spend our time instead on those who can be persuaded to vote Yes.
Here’s a wee analogy. Imagine someone asks you if you fancy coming out for a drink after work, and you say “No”. They’ll ask you why not, and you might say “Och, I’ve got to make my tea when I get home, and I’ve got to put the washing on as well.”
In reply, your friend says “That’s okay, we’re having pizza round at mine, so you don’t need to cook anything; and you’ve got all weekend to do your washing!”
Now, if those had been your genuine reasons for not going out, you’ll say “Aye, you’re right – what time will I come round?” But if they were just excuses, you’ll maybe say “Yeah but I’ve got to get up early tomorrow to, err, water the garden and, erm, I was out last week and it’s not payday until next week, and, erm, erm, my going-out trousers are in the wash, and, and…”
The excuses will continue, no matter how many times your friend offers a solution, because none of them are the actual reason why you don’t want to go out. So why don’t you just tell the truth and say why you don’t want to go out?
The answer is usually simple – it’s either a rubbish reason (“I’m not coming out because I just don’t feel like it”) or you know the reason will reflect badly on you (“I’m not coming out because, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather stay in and play video games than hear about your dull lives all night.”)
And so it is with those who don’t currently support independence. Some will have genuine reasons and concerns for not supporting it, most likely the result of years of media brainwashing telling us we’re too wee, too poor and too stupid to be an independent country. They don’t actually have any ideological opposition to independence, so if their concerns can be addressed, they’ll come over to our side.
But others will come out with a never-ending list of excuses (maybe as many as 500), and in the unlikely event that you do manage to exhaust their list, perhaps you’ll finally reach the real reason they’re not going to vote Yes: “Because I think I might lose a couple of quid” or “Because I’m scared of change” or “Because I don’t consider Scotland to be a country.”
So it’s important to identify non-convertibles quickly, and that’s why it’s good to start off by asking people to imagine how they would vote if there were no roadblocks to prevent us becoming independent. After all, the question being asked next year is not “Could Scotland be an independent country?” The question we’re being asked (and hopefully voting Yes to) is: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
But be careful, because there’s a complicating factor, in the form of a group that belongs to one camp while masquerading as the other – those who claim to be undecided, but have a list of impossible demands which must be satisfied or they’ll vote No, because they’re not prepared to settle for getting 70% of what they want.
For these people it’s 100% or nothing, and you’ve got no chance. But luckily you can spot them, because they’re invariably characterised by demands for a “better debate”.
Much hand-wringing goes on in certain sectors of the media and blogosphere about how we need a “better” debate around independence, and a great deal of it consists of lazy platitudes, by people content simply to cast aspersions on the current state of affairs without actually offering up alternatives.
A particularly popular way of expressing this malaise is to wish a plague on both houses, by saying that both Yes and No are just as bad as each other. A cynical way of looking at this is to think of it as essentially being shorthand for “Look at how wonderfully non-partisan I am, blaming both sides for the poor state of affairs”, but whatever the motives, it helps nobody – if anything, it does more damage.
The problem with the “they’re both as bad as each other” line is that it’s simply not true, and it falls squarely into a key trap laid by the anti-independence campaign. A huge part of No camp tactics is to turn people off debate entirely, because debate has an uncomfortable habit of both bringing out facts, and encouraging people to think of independence as a genuine and normal alternative.
They don’t WANT us to be debating independence, so the fewer people taking part, the better. That’s why they don’t turn up at events and demand Yes campaigners are banned as a result. It’s why they censor a vast percentage of comments on their websites. It’s why Alistair Darling refuses to participate in public debate with anyone on the Yes Scotland team.
“They’re both as bad as each other” sends out two messages: to the No campaign, it says their tactics are working, because by acting in this manner, they’re managing to drag the reputation of the Yes side with them; to the undecided voters not currently taking part in the debate, it says that you won’t get any sense out of either side, so you might as well continue ignoring them.
If people genuinely want to see improvement, they need to be truthful about who the obstacle to that is. Last week’s Scotland Tonight debate on welfare was a prime example. Anas Sarwar’s ignorant, insidious and insulting performance was so ugly that even anti-independence newspaper journalists were slagging it off, yet you could still see the same lazy tweets about both sides being just as bad, even though Nicola Sturgeon would have stood a better chance of getting a proper debate out of someone who answered every question with “Yer maw”.
Are the No campaign going to change their ways because people have claimed both sides were awful? No – it’s a job well done as far as they’re concerned. Meanwhile the Yes campaign is tarred with the same brush, through no fault of its own.
A less damaging (but no less wearisome) constant refrain from some quarters is that there are no “spaces” for undecided voters to debate, with the debate being polarised between Yes and No. Again, we’ll sidestep the issue that it’s kind of inevitable that a debate on a Yes/No referendum is going to become polarised between the only two available options. We’ll also ignore the fact that this criticism tends to be just another way of saying “they’re both as bad as each other”, despite it being the fault of one side entirely that what’s supposedly the most popular option isn’t even on the ballot paper.
(And let’s even ignore the fact that the only reason “Devo Max” is supposedly so popular is because, like all middle-options, it would have allowed people to express an opinion on an issue, without having to get off the fence one way or another.)
No, the criticism here is simply this: instead of berating the existing campaigns that their approach to the debate is too polarising and that undecided voters are being squeezed out (presumably because they’re all such delicate flowers who get scared off if they so much as get a whiff of two people they don’t know arguing about something on the internet), why not go ahead and create these “spaces” yourself, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you? Surely a debate about independence versus dependency is exactly the environment for people to do it themselves instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them?
(Unless, of course, it’s simply a trendy way of copping out and sticking with the status quo instead, as if to say “I could have voted Yes if someone would have bothered to engage with me, but you didn’t, so I’m voting No in a huff.”)
So the next time you see someone bemoaning the state of the independence debate, ask them how they would improve it, and why they’re not doing it already – and remember, “I’ve written a blog about it” isn’t a good enough answer. (The irony of that last sentence is noted. But then, I’m not the one doing the complaining.)