By Peter A. Bell
If the mainstream media is to be believed then the Yes Scotland campaign isn’t doing too well. On the few occasions when the organisation isn’t being ignored altogether in favour of the easier target of the SNP, it is to allow some comment to the effect that they are “on the back foot” or have suffered another “setback” of some kind.
To be fair, it is not only the media who have been critical. Many committed independence supporters have expressed mixed feelings about the official Yes campaign.
Usually along the lines of it not being proactive enough or sufficiently vigorous is dealing with this or that. Is such criticism justified? Are the media offering a fair analysis of Yes Scotland’s management of the campaign? If information released to mark the first anniversary of the Yes Scotland launch is anything to go by then it may be that adverse judgements have been both harsh and hasty.
Headlining the announcement is the fact that more than 372,000 people have signed the Yes Declaration, marking significant progress towards the target of 1 million signatures set by Alex Salmond before Yes Scotland was even up and running. This in itself is a significant achievement and suggests that, with some sixteen months still to go, the target may not be as overly ambitious as some thought at the time.
One year on from it’s launch Yes Scotland has built up a formidable campaigning force with more than 170 local Yes groups the length and breadth of Scotland and some 15 sectoral groups for young people, women, trade unionists etc. These groups are not idle. Over the course of any week there are thousands of people out canvassing, leafleting, manning street stalls and holding public meetings. Not to mention all the work that goes on in the background in order to make the public events happen.
• 1200 Yes events held
• 3.1million leaflets delivered
• 23,000+ visitors to the Yes online store
• 57,000 items of merchandise sold
These are numbers any commercial organisation would be delighted with.
Yes campaigners totally dominate the social media and, to an only slightly lesser extent, the blogging scene. Although not necessarily part of the official campaign, all these Facebook Groups and proliferating Twitter accounts are inspired by Yes Scotland and stem from the determination of those at the helm that it should be a genuinely bottom-up, grass-roots campaign. Meanwhile, Yes Scotland’s own digital team regularly outperforms the opposition on all relevant metrics.
• 56,000+ Facebook likes
• 17,000+ Twitter followers
• 76,000 YouTube views
It all adds up to the largest grassroots political campaign in Scotland’s history. If that’s failure then I suspect Better Together would happily swap it for some of their supposed success.
What remains to be explained is the perception that Yes Scotland is “failing” both in some absolute sense and relative to Better Together. In part, this is down to the media bias referred to earlier and the effect this has on the visibility of Yes Scotland.
For whatever reason, the mainstream media continues to portray the independence campaign as being led by the SNP. Better Together is generally acknowledged as the official anti-independence campaign. Yes Scotland, by comparison at least, seldom is. This could be down to any permutation of a number of factors ranging from lazy journalists unable or unwilling to extricate themselves from the simple dichotomies of British party politics, through to a deliberate attempt to sideline Yes Scotland on the grounds that it is easier to attack a political party than an aspirational organisation.
There is also a tendency to base all judgements about the success of the two campaigns on a very simplistic reading of polling results. What this means is that Better Together gets unearned credit for the natural inertia that would exist supposing they did nothing at all. Yes Scotland, on the other hand, gets no credit at all for its success in achieving what it actually aimed to do in the early stages of the campaign, which was to set out the fundamentals of the issues and arguments and get people thinking and talking about the constitutional question.
Success in this is not reflected in polling returns. It is reflected in the fact that people are increasingly engaging with the referendum debate in various ways. Hence the thousands attending public meetings and the tens of thousands engaging online and the unknowable number simply talking about independence at home, at work or in the pub.
Then there is the difference in the nature of the two campaigns. The anti-independence campaign is brash, aggressive and clumsy. (Witness the “500 questions” fiasco!) There is no incentive to improve because there is little in the way of public criticism of failures.
When someone representing Yes Scotland says something that diverges in some respect from the latest policy pronouncements of Alex Salmond or John Swinney this is pounced upon by commentators unable to comprehend that this does not represent any kind of “split” but merely the differences between two quite distinct organisations.
Unable to think in terms other than the traditional party-political contest, these commentators see, and portray, such differences as damaging conflict. All too many seem quite incapable of recognising that, within the independence movement, differences on matters such as currency are seen as a strength, not a weakness. Expression of diverse views, far from being a sign of failure, is a powerful indicator of just how successful Yes Scotland has been in creating a broad-based campaign.
Where the anti-independence campaign is a flailing bludgeon, the Yes Scotland campaign is almost surgically delicate. It is sophisticated and nuanced and decidedly unaggressive. One would expect the flailing bludgeon to be more noticeable than the gentle prod. But subtlety should not be mistaken for weakness. Nor should having a low profile be taken to indicate ineffectiveness.
This was brought home to me when I met with the Yes Scotland campaign team last Wednesday (22 May). I went to the campaign’s Hope Street headquarters in Glasgow as part of a delegation from Facebook group, the League of Very Sovereign Scots. I think I speak for everyone in that delegation when I say that we were greatly impressed. And for all involved when I say that it was a very productive and rewarding meeting.
The fact alone that four of Yes Scotland’s leading campaign organisers were prepared to devote three hours to a wide-ranging, frank discussion with half a dozen people broadly representative of the grass-roots effort is a resounding testament to way the campaign is being run.
As well as being delighted by the accessibility, we were struck by the powerful commitment of the campaign team. Not just to the cause of independence, but to the creation of a genuine community campaign which is truly the voice of the people rather than old established political elites.
Arguably, this is the real success of Yes Scotland up to this point. While the Better Together campaign is merely an extension of the old divisive, disputatious, adversarial politics of the British state, Yes Scotland has, at the very least, inspired hope of a new politics.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum next year, Scotland’s politics has been transformed. There is a new engagement with the democratic process which would have been all but unimaginable a year ago. People who would naturally shun the arid landscape of confrontational party politics are finding a place more to their liking in the new territories being opened up by the positive side of the referendum debate.
There is an impression, too, that even those long-accustomed to service on the battlegrounds of tribal party politics are being induced to rethink their attitudes in the light of experience of the boundlessly inclusive campaign for independence that is almost entirely the product of Yes Scotland’s efforts.
As more and more people are encouraged by the openness of the framework generated by Yes Scotland, so the horizons of general political debate are broadened. As people are increasingly enthused by the possibilities and potential of independence, Scotland’s political scene has become more active and richly diverse than it has been in decades.
There is a growing sense that nothing is off the table. That anything is up for discussion. That meaningful progressive change is achievable. Swathes of thinking on social and economic policy that had long been relegated to the wilderness of fringe politics are now finding a niche in what I like to think of as the real referendum debate.
Yes Scotland may not yet have won the referendum. But, with sixteen months still to go, they have made massive and almost certainly irreversible strides towards creating the conditions in which it will be won. If that doesn’t count as success, I really don’t know what might.