There’s more to the campaign for independence than merely putting forward a good case for independence. People in general are afraid of change – they avoid it if possible and need not only good reasons to change, but also reasons why what they have at present isn’t working.
If a salesperson were to try to sell you a car, would they succeed if you already owned a car that you liked and felt performed the function it needed to perform? They might try to highlight the increased fuel efficiency, smooth ride, warranty and additional extra features that your current vehicle doesn’t have. They could offer options on financing to show that you can afford it.
But what if in addition to pointing out the positive benefits of a new car, they also begin to highlight where your own car was serving its purpose poorly? The fortune you’re paying in petrol, the discomfort you suffer as you drive, the constant breakdowns and repair fees, and so on. Would you start to be more interested in changing then?
It’s now common to find supporters of the Union chastising independence supporters who highlight the failings of Westminster as being “negative”. The tactic is simple – stop the independence campaign from capitalising on the negative consequences of Westminster governance, whether it’s the bedroom tax, welfare “reform”, the economy or any other area currently reserved to London.
In January the Guardian published an article entitled “Scottish nationalists don’t have a monopoly on Scottishness” written by Blair McDougall (director of “Better Together”, a fact the Guardian curiously left out of the article).
The straw-man attack – has anyone ever said they do? – was the first real attempt to pin down the Yes campaign and prevent them from using negative arguments, and it hammered the point time and time again throughout the article.
“In Scotland increasingly those who question their government’s plan to dissolve the 300-year-old political, economic and social union between Scotland and the rest of the UK are under attack. They stand accused as being unpatriotic, anti-Scottish, and above all, of being negative. Business figures complain of a culture of fear, threats and boycotts from nationalists…”
“The irony is that the nationalist campaign is deeply negative. Their campaign exists to break the solidarity and unity that exists across the United Kingdom. The very heart of their proposition is inherently negative: that the people of our island are too different from each other to share political institutions…”
“The narrative of division and difference has no logic but it is the only strategy they have. They need to divide Scots from Geordies, Scousers, Brummies, Mancunians and Liverpudlians. They must make familiar family members into abnormal strangers…”
“Devolution is, in the words of John Smith, the settled will of the Scottish people. For the negative nationalists it is a ‘half measure’ or ‘messy fudge’.”
“If it is a bribe, it is strange one. In a recent opinion poll options for further tax raising powers or fiscal autonomy were far less popular than the current devolution arrangements.”
In essence, then, McDougall is saying that the independence campaign is deeply negative because it questions the motivations and arguments of the No campaign. Extraordinarily, he even claims that a family member in the rUK will become some sort of “abnormal stranger”. (As opposed to normal ones?)
McDougall insinuates that the idea of independence is interfering with the “settled will of the Scottish people” – meaning devolution. (A highly debatable point in any event, as the Scottish people’s will has never been tested with a full range of options, including independence, in over 300 years.) But what about that poll cited to back up his assertion? It actually said:
“19% said they would back independence… with 38% preferring to continue with the status quo, and 33% admitting they would be content to remain within the UK as long as there were extra powers offered, such as Devo Max.”
So in fact that’s 52% of voters NOT content with the status quo and in search “further tax raising powers or fiscal autonomy”, either through greater devolution or independence. McDougall’s description wasn’t quite an absolute lie, though it came extremely close to one (even if we discount independence, a 5% gap between the status quo and devo-max isn’t “much less popular”).
But the attempted killer blow was in his final paragraph:
“Positive Scottishness contrasts with the inward looking negative narrative of grievance and division. The SNP, on ceremonial occasions, wear a white rose in reference to a work by nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid. “The rose of all the world is not for me”, he wrote, “I want for my part only the little white rose of Scotland.” How closed-minded. How parochial. How un-Scottish. How negative.”
It’s a clear attempt not only to put the independence campaign in a bad light, but also to say to Scots that we are part of the UK and it would be terribly selfish, parochial and inward-looking to start putting our own interests before that of the group. The main purpose of the tactic, though, is to make sure the ‘Yes’ campaign avoids any “negative” arguments for fear of being labelled as seeking “grievance and division” every time they point out a failing of Westminster.
The ball was picked up more recently by Margaret Curran, one of the campaign directors of ‘Better Together’ and Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary. She accused the SNP (rather than Yes Scotland – part of a consistent and deliberate strategy on the part of the Unionist parties aimed at making the referendum a party-political issue) of fighting a negative campaign by portraying the referendum as a choice between independence or a Conservative government at Westminster.
“The SNP’s suggestion that being Scottish is enough to guarantee social democratic ends just isn’t true. Scots know that ‘getting rid of the Tories’ is too simplistic an answer for a decision that will last forever.”
But the Yes campaign is NOT founded on a notion that independence will secure left-wing governments for all eternity. Rather, it points out that we’d get whatever government we voted for, all the time, rather than approximately 45% of the time as we have in the years since World War 2 (and only then by coincidence, when we happened to want the same thing as the voters of England).
Ms Curran appears to be suggesting that it’s unacceptable to Labour politicians for the problems of society to be highlighted and confronted, and that negative attacks on other politicians and parties are no longer acceptable. But if that’s the case, what are the oppositions in Westminster and Holyrood actually going to do all day? There would be no need for an opposition, since ANY criticism can be construed as negative. And that would put Margaret Curran, and every other Labour MP and MSP, out of a job.
(Perhaps we’re already seeing this philosophy unfold as the Labour Party maintain a policy of abstaining on almost any contentious issue rather than frighten the voters of Middle England with anything that might seem left-wing. It’s almost as if they’re living up to the old maxim “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.)
This all seems something of a moot point, as Yes Scotland is absolutely focused on positive campaigning anyway. Their belief is that a positive campaign always wins against a negative campaign, and in elections that’s nearly always true. Normal elections are part of the familiar cycle of governance. They hold little fear for voters, because we know that once the vote is counted and the next government elected, you still have the same passport, talk to the same government agencies, and pay your taxes the same way. The trappings and machinations of government carry on regardless even if the policies they implement change radically.
But the referendum isn’t an election, despite the relentless attempts of those on the No side to depict it as one by endlessly demanding “answers” on specific policies. It’s a vote on the very existence of our country, and more to the point it’s above all a vote for change far beyond that provided in an election.
Change is inevitable, it’s always with us, yet there are many people who are genuinely troubled by the prospect of changing something that’s been notionally “the same” for centuries. (It hasn’t, of course – the United Kingdom of 2013 is similar to the one of 1713 only in geography, but it’s an easy enough illusion to put forward.)
And as the AV referendum of 2011 showed, the fear of change, even when the thing being changed is hopelessly broken, is powerful. An overwhelmingly negative campaign killed AV dead, and showed that it’s not wise to cut out half your arguments because they happen to focus on negative aspects. If you row a boat with only one oar, after all, you just wind up going in circles.
These are people the Yes campaign need to reach, but to convince people who have no motivation to change they need to be told what’s wrong with the way things are as well as merely how they could be better. Pointing out that something isn’t working isn’t negativity – criticism is only negative if you don’t offer a solution, and Yes Scotland is doing that in spades.
Constructing a negative argument is not the same as being negative. When we think of negativity in politics we immediately conjure up images of attack ads, personal abuse and spin. What has to be remembered however; is that arguing negatively is not the same as negative campaigning.
Negative campaigning involves mudslinging – attacking an opponent’s personality, record, or opinion; leaking damaging information to the media; using outside ‘impartial’ organisations such as think-tanks to launch attacks; other attacks conducted by proxy, such as via a compliant media; and “push polls” that are really propaganda disguised as an opinion survey, created by asking questions arranged or worded in such a way as to give the pollster the answer desired.
(All of these are, of course, standard-issue tactics for “Better Together”.)
In contrast, a negative argument doesn’t deploy abuse or propaganda, but requires instead that you advance a position which contradicts one of your opponent’s premises, either by denying that the criteria used by your opponent is rational or by proving that their facts are wrong. A negative argument undermines an opposing conclusion by attacking the premise or veracity of the argument. An effective negative argument forensically questions the soundness of your opponent’s position, as opposed to just contradicting their conclusion.
The anti-independence campaign is on extremly shaky ground in this regard. As 2013 draws on, the impact of the Westminster austerity program of benefit cuts and punitive measures on the poor, sick, disabled, unemployed, families, the young and also the elderly will continue to bite.
Allowing the Yes campaign to capitalise on the misery being created by the UK government would be disastrous for the Unionist side, particularly if it looks increasingly unlikely that Labour might offer any hope of a change of direction. (Either by being unelectable, or by adopting Conservative policies wholesale with only minor tweaks around the edges.)
The unpalatable truth for Yes Scotland is that at some point negative arguments might represent the best chance of getting people who aren’t necessarily interested in the constitutional debate as such to think about how it could directly affect the issues they do care about. Some steps have been made in that direction recently, highlighting the imposition on Scotland of unpopular policies like Trident and the bedroom tax by Westminster despite large majorities of opposition from Scottish MPs of all parties.
The independence campaign must walk a fine line between pointing out that fundamental democratic deficit and being dragged into the specific policy debates which demonstrate it. But it does seem – perhaps a little belatedly – to have realised that to paddle Scotland out of a creek, it’ll need to use both oars.