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