I have news for those who continue to insist that the way to “win” what they apparently think of as the “prize” of independence is by using gentle persuasion and more facts and better answers to lure ‘soft Nos’ towards Yes. The news is that there are no conclusive answers there are no persuasive facts and there are no ‘soft Nos’. If as an activist in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence you are on a quest for herds of soft Nos that can be picked off with well-aimed information and statistics then you are in search of a mythical beast. And even if this beast existed the accuracy of your aim and the quality of your ammunition would not make a difference.
There are no soft Nos out there. By late 2014 or early 2015 the soft No was extinct. The Yes campaign had bagged them all. The polls aren’t moving and haven’t moved in seven years because such campaigning as has been going on was targeting a non-existent constituency with ineffective methods. We know that such campaigning as has been going on was aimed at an absent target and using inadequate ammunition because the polls haven’t moved in seven years.
Advocates of a strategy of gently persuading soft Nos point to the polls at 50% – up from <30% ten years ago – and claim this proves their strategy is effective. I look at the fact that the polls moved from <30% to ~50% in two years prior to the 2014 referendum but not at all in the seven years since and I conclude that the gentle persuasion strategy used to work; that it worked at one time but that time is past. It worked while the pond we were fishing in was well stocked with soft Nos. It ceased to work when the shoals of soft Nos became depleted.
There are no soft Nos! The best we can hope for is a few al dente Nos in amongst all the Nos of various hardnesses.
It wasn’t facts and answers which killed off the supply of soft Nos. Some of it may have helped to some extent in some cases. But it was not what put those additional 20 points on the Yes polling. People don’t vote on the basis of what they know, they vote according to what they feel. They like to pretend that their choices are highly rational. They will cite facts and answers to show how rational their decision-making process is. But generally speaking, this is a post hoc rationalisation of a choice made on the basis of emotion. The Yes campaign made those soft Nos feel good about themselves and positive about Scotland and maybe a wee bit angry at Unionists. The Yes campaign reached the ’90-minute nationalist’ that loiters somewhere in the soul of every Scot. It inspired those who were receptive to this kind of appeal. All those facts and answers merely provided a fig-leaf of reason to cover the nakedness of an emotional choice.
Exactly the same applies to those soft Nos who might be better thought of as soft Yes. The ones that got away. The fish that ended up in the hold of the factory ship ‘Better Together’. They too voted what they felt and not what they thought they knew. They used the output of the British propaganda machine to rationalise their emotional choice in the same way as those soft Nos who were tipped in the direction of Yes used the ‘vision’ of a better, fairer, greener Scotland to justify their choice. (Or one of the ‘visions’. There were hundreds of them. That was part of the problem.)
The reason No won the 2014 referendum is that they had the easy job of creating or exacerbating the doubts to which all humans are susceptible while Yes had the near-impossible task of ‘making a case’ for independence almost entirely based on elusive, ephemeral economic ‘data’. If ever there was a field of human study that lends itself to the creation or exacerbation of doubt it is the dismal science. How do you think economics came to be known thus?
No had a massive advantage from the outset because of the way the issue was framed – making independence the contentious proposition rather than the Union. We cannot and must not blame then First Minister Alex Salmond for this. In many ways he was caught on the hop by the outcome of the 2011 election and was obliged to pretty much take whatever he could get. That he got so much is a testament to his skill and determination. We should never forget what that man did for Scotland’s cause. Those who have should hang their heads in shame.
It’s not 2011 any more. It’s a decade on and a different world. It is difficult to think of anything that is the same now as it was then. Difficult enough to embolden me to say that there is nothing that hasn’t changed. And yet the Sturgeon doctrine – Nicola Sturgeon’s overall approach to the constitutional issue – operates on the assumption that nothing has changed. At least, nothing of any great consequence. Nothing that need be taken into account when formulating a strategy for taking Scotland’s cause forward and to fruition. To the miniscule extent that the SNP leadership has any such strategy it involves no more than endeavouring to replicate the 2014 referendum in every way that matters. The favoured cliché remains ‘Softly! Softly! Catchee monkey!’. In the world of realpolitik it is a case of ‘Softly! Softly! Get eaten by the fucking monkeys!’.
We need consider only one of the ways in which Sturgeon wants to replicate the 2014 referendum in order to make the point. The most important thing in a referendum is the question on the ballot paper. The question put is almost entirely responsible for framing the issue and therefore defining the campaign. To the limited extent that it isn’t the thing that frames the issue, the question reflects whatever else is involved. The question is key. The form of the question is crucial. Let us remind ourselves what that question was for the first referendum.
Should Scotland be an independent country?
Immediately we can see the advantage that this gives the anti-independence campaign. It frames the issue as independence being the thing that has to be ‘proved’. It makes the normality of independence the contentious issue rather than the grotesquely anomalous Union. It allows the No campaign to succeed simply by casting doubt on the proposition. To create such doubt it need only ask questions. Lots of questions. Endless questions. Unanswerable questions. The very question on the ballot paper exemplifies the kind of questions the No campaign might ask. Asking whether Scotland should be an independent country creates doubt about it. In the same way that asking someone if they remembered their phone will immediately make them check to make sure. Asking the question makes them doubt what they know to be true.
The default assumption surely must be that every country should be independent. Put that question to the people of any other country and they’d think you mad. With good reason! The question is toxic!
None of this is new. It’s all been said before by myself and others. People like Bill Mills have done a huge amount of work trying to get across the idea of reframing. Because the constitutional issue obviously needs to be reframed. Or so you might think. Nicola Sturgeon would disagree. The Sturgeon doctrine maintains that if/when there is another referendum exactly the same question should be used. The forces of British Nationalism are to be given that massive advantage yet again. The Yes campaign is to be on the defensive from the outset just as it was ten years ago. It is insanity!
If all of this has been covered before repeatedly and comprehensively, why bring it up again now? In the first place, it never does any harm to point out political folly when it looms. Particularly when the stakes are as high as they are. But the main reason for raising the topic again is to remind those planning on attending the White Rose Rising: #UnionNoMore demonstration at Holyrood next Tuesday afternoon that the purpose is not simply to demand a date for a new referendum but to demand a total rethink of the SNP/Scottish Government’s entire approach to the constitutional issue. To demand that the issue be reframed in such a way as to ensure that the Yes campaign is not placed at a massive disadvantage.
It is not a question of whether Scotland should be an independent country but a question of whether Scotland is prepared to tolerate the Union any longer.
It is not a question of whether Scotland can survive as an independent nation but whether Scotland can survive as a nation if we do not immediately end the Union.
We don’t just want a new referendum. We want a different referendum. The game-changer for the fight to restore Scotland’s independence is not the setting of a date for the referendum but a declaration by the SNP/Scottish Government that the new referendum will be a true exercise of our right of self-determination. That it will be a referendum entirely made and managed in Scotland under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament alone and with no role for the British state.
It is our right of self-determination! It is our referendum! Our referendum has nothing to do with Westminster! Westminster can have nothing to do with our referendum!