How Yes couldn’t cope with the Better Together spin campaign

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Book review: Derek Bateman

Near the start of the referendum campaign I contacted a Scottish publisher to suggest a book on its progress with insider information and written with pace and descriptive detail to mirror the boisterous circus it had become.

His answer, when it finally came, was to decline because ‘nobody on the editorial board thought there was any interest.’ Perhaps that was wishful thinking on his part, as he was to emerge as a convinced Unionist, no doubt hoping it would all go away.

Well, it didn’t go away and if Birlinn still think there is no interest in the referendum, they have misjudged the market. I count four referendum related works so far. This one, by Cargo, delivers what many readers will regard as the ideal combination – the endlessly fascinating topic of Scotland’s political future and arguably its best commentator.

Iain Macwhirter: ringside seat at referendum battle
Iain Macwhirter: ringside seat at referendum battle

Iain Macwhirter has been chronicling  this story for as long as just about anybody and, for me, it is important to have been there at crucial times to sense the moment, to smell the fear, to feel the goose bumps in elation and despair…one small example being Dunoon 1989 in the hours after the SNP conference, delegates deflated and disillusioned with one MEP elected and the Glasgow Central by election lost, he and I as journalists at a table with young Nicola Sturgeon and Roseanna Cunningham as they wondered if it was all worth it. Little did we know…

So few of today’s political journalists actually have a deeper knowledge or appreciation of what were the seminal years for today’s MSP generation and simply can’t provide the perspective. Macwhirter is one who can.

Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland has the breadth and impartial analysis needed to allow a cold look at a tempestuous topic and to suggest where errors have to be conceded and tactics praised, nowhere more than on the turning point of currency. This gambit of focusing hard on a single disputed area and constructing around it a superstructure of doubt is acknowledged by the author to be the most potent instrument in the No portfolio of fear.

They added to it by using the media to instill the idea that Yes was an out-of-control Nationalist front for intolerant thugs, but essentially it was the Pound wot won it. Currency played into the economic argument which was the worry of the middle classes, it had a powerful symbolism and, although the reality is that its value is propped up by Scottish exports and the economy is crushed under a mountain of sovereign debt, it had the brutal simplicity of a political silver bullet.

Macwhirter also interprets the Nationalist reaction as unimpressive and unconvincing, allowing the Union to run and run with what was a probable sleight of hand.

In fact the currency ruse is emblematic of the entire campaign because while it did its job with the fearful, it had the opposite effect on the wider population and turned Scots against the Union and the tri-partite front which threatened a currency deal. He writes: ‘In fact, the credibility problem got worse for Better Together as the referendum approached and by August, when the official campaign began, even a majority of No voters said they simply did not believe the Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition on the pound.

In the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which tends not to be favourable to independence, the vast majority of voters agreed with Alex Salmond that there should be a monetary union, and most thought there would be. The UK’s leading polling analyst, Professor John Curtice, gave this assessment of the overall polling evidence in his blog, What Scotland Thinks on September 2 2014: 67% of Scottish voters believe that an independent Scotland would carry on using the pound. Amongst Yes voters that last figure stands at no less than 87%, including 67% who think there would still be a monetary union, but even just over half of No voters, 54%, reckon Scotland would keep the pound. In short the No side’s claim that an independent Scotland would not be able to keep the pound is still widely disbelieved.

This was an extraordinary development, which even some in the Yes campaign found hard to credit. The Scottish Government’s entire economic policy lay in ruins, and yet the Scots were saying: well, actually, we prefer the ruins. ‘ He adds: ‘The rejection of currency union, out of hand and without possibility of negotiation, sent a disturbing message to many younger Scots: that the rUK was prepared, if necessary, to wreck the Scottish economy rather than let Scotland go. History may judge that, as a moral community, the Union died on 13th February 2014, and that it was George Osborne who wielded the knife.’

DisunitedCoverHighResIn a handful of paragraphs, this is a microcosm of what has happened. Alastair Darling devised the strategy which won. But in arguing that this was not a normal election, it was instead for ever, he missed his own point. The currency con was an old fashioned British device designed to scare, against the background knowledge that another election will be along in a few years. But there is no chance to revisit the threat of the currency. It will remain there for ever as proof that British national self interest will always come first. And that Britain would rather wreck Scotland’s economy than see it flourish independently. I know of previous No supporters who turned to Yes in disgust at this naked threat and expropriation of Scotland’s currency. It is the ultimate failure of the Darling strategy and justifies the title strapline – Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland.

Macwhirter concludes that Yes HQ was chaotic and failed to feed the beast that is the media. I agree with part of this. It was plain that it was much easier to throw doubt on independence than on the known issue of the Union. Therefore organisations and institutions had a simple job of getting headlines out of ‘….doubts over regulation, or pensions or defence etc’. So the central machine should have been building a stock of positive stories to release and should also have moved decisively into attack mode over the Union. The disastrous performance of the UK across so many fronts from productivity to executive pay, from unelected chambers to the class system, from torture state to arms dealer should all have been fed to the media.

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Murphy: mission accomplished

He reminds us too that the man now seeking reconciliation, the new patriot Jim Murphy also played an ignominious part of deceiving the people and demonising those whose votes he now pursues.
‘The campaign was also poor at rebutting misleading stories and deconstructing media stunts. The Labour MP Jim Murphy, for example, produced a video compilation of alleged harassment from Yes campaigners during his speaking tour, during which he was hit by an egg. This video-nasty was simply spliced together from camera phone footage of rowdy hecklers and did not justify Murphy’s claim of an organised campaign of mob intimidation by Yes Scotland. The egg wasn’t even thrown by a Yes campaigner, and it is clear even from Murphy’s video that those holding Yes placards did not support the assault. In another scene, a press photographer is clearly shown trying to incite one of the protesters to hit him in front of The Times journalist Mike Wade.

Yes Scotland seemed unable to deal with this crude propaganda exercise, or make clear that pro-Yes speakers like Jim Sillars had received very similar treatment on the streets and that there had been assaults on Yes campaigners. The story of Yes intimidation ran for days, colouring voters’ attitudes to independence.

There were numerous similar examples of this failure to engage. One suggestion was that the Yes campaign felt that it should not get its hands dirty trying to rebut damaging stories. If you wrestle with a pig you both get dirty, as I heard one campaigner remark. But sometimes, unfortunately, you do have to deal with negative stories on their own terms. The Jim Murphy episode was highly damaging because it allowed Better Together to play to the narrative that Scottish nationalists are essentially ‘street thugs of the far right.’

Finally, the book tells us the Scottish Question remains unanswered and without a rapid and fully federal UK transition, there will be another referendum which WILL take us out. (I fear there is a subtext here which is that Britain will never learn because it doesn’t understand real democracy and will repeat the mistakes of history).

Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland, Iain Macwhirter; Cargo Publishing £8.99

9 COMMENTS

  1. Would the unionist press have published stories which were detrimental to the Westminster establishment?
    I doubt it.
    The lesson from this surely is that when the media is owned/controlled by people residing outside your country,do not expect a sympatheic hearing when their perceived interests conflict with yours.

  2. Don’t make me laugh about all the Media co-operation the Yes Campaign had at their fingertips.
    Do me a favour!
    This disinformation is the reason why this book won’t be on my must buy list.

    • “Don’t make me laugh about all the Media co-operation the Yes Campaign had at their fingertips.”

      Eh? Surely you are not serious? If so, what campaign were you watching? Because it certainly wasn’t the same one as the rest of us. What you’ve done there is to once more demonstrate, if any more demonstration were required, one of the main successful tactics of the ‘No’ campaign – shamelessly state that black is indeed white, and keep saying it over and over again, in the hope that the gullible will subconsciously absorb it and cease to question it.

      A good example of this would be that of the Bush II administration in the (roughly) 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Although they never actually stated that Iraq was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre, they just mentioned the two things in the same sentence so many times that by the time of the invasion over 60% of Americans believed that it was so.

      It’s called ‘The Big Lie.’

  3. While I agree with the sentiment in the review that the official Yes campaign seemed limp and weak (most campaigning seems to have been done by unofficial independence campaigners).

    However, in complete agreement with the above comments, this may have been a result of the completely pro-unionist media which appears to have been ignored by Iain Macwhiter and even Derek Bateman who had raised this during the independence campaign on several occasions. Only sites like Wings Over Scotland and Bella Caledonia (as well as Bateman and Wee Ginger Dug) seemed to possess even the most rudimentary journalistic skills that enabled them to question the claims from the Bitter Together campaign, many of which have now been found to be nonsense and outright lies, something the mainstream media seemed incapable of doing (with only a few small exceptions) and are still incapable of doing – look at how Scottish Labour’s nonsense is currently being published without being challenged and even supported by the likes of Kaye Adams.

    Make no mistake, the referendum was won by the unionists thanks to the very biased media. Had it all been impartial or, god forbid, pro-independence then I have no doubt that the Yes campaign would have won by a comfortable margin, at least as much as what we lost by.

  4. “Macwhirter concludes that Yes HQ was chaotic and failed to feed the beast that is the media.”

    You could’ve layed a Smörgåsbord of pro-Indy stories before our beloved MSM, but if none of them chose to run with anything because the high-heid-yins at BBC Scotland, the Scotsman, the Herald, the Sun, the Daily Record etc. etc. are pro-Union, then what could be done?

    Having to rely upon RT News, Al Jazeera, the johnny-come-lately ‘Sunday Herald’, plus websites like Newsnet Scotland, Wings over Scotland, Scottish Statesman, National Collective, Bella Caledonia and Caledonian Mercury was never going to counter the No campaign’s efforts, aided by an ever loyal MSM.

    I doubt even if The National had arrived six months before the referendum if that would have made a difference – many outlets including major supermarkets don’t take it, and those who do often bury it alongside/under the weekly ‘ad-rag’ and ‘local’ newspapers.

  5. And I noticed that The Herald were going to wait and see how the promises of ‘The Vow’ were going to go before deciding to go pro-indy or not(?)
    Haven’t seen any declaration of intent by them on the bunch of drivel from Smith’s Commission pisstake either.
    And not likely too as they’re back to doing what their masters tell them just like the bitches they are.

  6. As I have found out today in an article in the Sunday Mail the countering of Labour spin is still our most difficult challenge.

  7. Robertknight – You say the National is often buried under other papers. This is probably because newsagents have set spaces for existing/older established titles. Nothing to stop you spreading the National about a bit is there? You’ll feel so much more empowered too!

  8. I have ordered this book as it’s essential the insight provided is available as a permanent reminder and point of reference for future generations. We all have views and thoughts on why the Yes Campaign didn’t win for me the SNP completely underestimated what the Brit Establishment would be prepared to deploy to defend the Union. Before the campaign we heard that the lessons of Quebec had been learned,we needed to be pro-nato ,without fully understanding why this could help the party in a referendum.
    We had no strategy to truly nail the Big Issues- The Pound, Pensions, EU Membership, NATO, Defence Jobs and the inevitable threats from Business to move away. All of these issues should have been foreseen and a solid campaign built around each to deliver a confident counter message to voters. Instead there was too much focus on delivering the much heralded White Paper-lets be honest at the time of it’s publication how many activists were disappointed desparately hoping for something really powerful that provided real answers. How many were underwhelmed by it’s potential to impact on the polls. A YES equivalent of the later “WEE Blue Book” was what campaigners needed at that time.
    Will the next referendum (if we choose that route) be organised and funded any differently? I hope that from the outset a Campaign will be created around the whole movement, Independence Politicians need to embrace the ideas and knowledge and experience from a much wider field and next time ensure victory by delivery of a more coordinated cohesive focused campaign. One in which the SNP will have less influence in planning.

    In my lifetime please!

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