By Mark McNaught
At first glance it may seem far-fetched to compare the campaign tactics of a disgraced late US President to an anti-independence campaign in Scotland. They take place in different times, different countries, and in very different political cultures.
However, closer examination of Richard Nixon’s political tactics reveal several disturbing similarities with what we have recently seen from the ‘Better Together’ campaign.
The political career of Richard Nixon, from his election to the House of Representatives in 1946 to his resignation in 1974 from the Presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal, offers lessons for the ‘yes’ campaign. While all of his campaigns were different, his take-no-prisoners style informs us what the ‘no’ campaign may have up their sleeve.
The central Nixonian characteristic is a complete lack of regard for the truth, a willingness to use distortions and outright lies against one’s political opponents. Richard Nixon defeated Jerry Voorhies in 1946 for a seat in the House of Representatives from California, smearing the labour supporter as a communist. Nixon later conceded that he knew he was not, but cynically opined that ‘the important thing is to win’.
During Nixon’s victorious campaign against Helen Douglas for a California Senate seat in 1950, fliers printed on pink paper were sent out accusing Douglas of being a communist, and being “pink right down to her underwear”. These campaigns and the ones that followed were characterised by red-baiting, vicious insinuations, and an utter lack of integrity.
While Anas Sarwar has not mastered the smooth smear as did Richard Nixon, we see these tactics in the ‘no’ campaign accusing Alex Salmond of leading a dictatorship in the Scottish parliament. Like Nixon, the ‘Better Together’ campaign has personalised the debate, accusing Salmond of fascist tendencies in an effort to vilify him and thereby the cause of Scottish independence. It should be remembered that the referendum is not on Alex Salmond, but rather the question of Scottish independence.
In Nixon’s ‘last press conference’ after having lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race, he accused the press of having “a lot of fun” at his expense, mistakenly declaring “you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”. This reflects his tendency to portray himself as a victim flogged by the press, confusing legitimate press scrutiny with personal abuse.
Perhaps ‘Better Together’ has taken that a step further, being at present unwilling or unable to substantiate their accusations that the Better Together headquarters in Glasgow “comes under attack with almost daily attempts of sabotage from SNP activists.” We have yet to see any evidence of masked stone-lobbing SNP fanatics besieging them. Like Nixon, it seems ‘Better Together’ has confused press scrutiny with not only personal but physical attack, a proven method of diverting attention from their own failings.
Another parallel between ‘Better Together’ and Nixon has to do with financial backing. By the end of the Watergate hearings, it was apparent how many secret illegal contributions had been made and how many slush funds had been established to fund the aptly named CREEP: Committee to RE-Elect the President.
For the ‘Better Together’ campaign, all we presently know about controversial financial backing is the contribution of £500,000 from Ian Taylor, CEO of Swiss-registered oil trading company Vitol and personally ineligible to vote in the referendum.
Among other things, it is known that this company paid $1 million to a Serbian war criminal to assist in securing an oil contract and did business with Saddam Hussein. I’m sure Alistair Darling will welcome this kind of examination and assure us that, like Nixon, Mr Taylor is completely on the level. However, it could be counterproductive if ‘Better Together’ seeks to explain financial improprieties as Nixon did in his infamous 1952 Checkers speech.
While vilification and unscrupulous financing are characteristics of many campaigns, the tone of the ‘Better Together’ has also revealed itself to be increasingly Nixonian. Like Nixon, the ‘Better Together’ campaign has little positive to say and must therefore rely almost exclusively on scare tactics to make their case. As Nixon noted, “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.”
In perhaps the most striking similarity, both Nixon and the ‘Better Together’ campaign are confident in the low-volume constituency that they hope supports them in their objectives. In November 1969 after assuming the presidency, Richard Nixon called on the ‘silent majority’ to support him in ending the Vietnam war. With only a few decibels difference, Alistair Darling has appealed to the ‘quiet majority’ of Scots to vote ‘no’, remain in the UK, thus saving Scotland from even more ruin.
While lately we have seen some journalistic signs of life as a handful of Scottish papers expose these tactics, it is the job of the mainstream Scottish media, especially BBC Scotland, to assure that ‘Better Together’ cannot get away with Nixonian campaign tactics. All viewers and readers must hold their feet to the fire.
Scots deserve an honest debate about their constitutional future, not fraudulent Nixonian diversions.
Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.