Saturday, 25 May 2013

Yes success

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 in 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.
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.
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Friday, 24 May 2013

Reasons for voting YES - 2

Those who follow me on Twitter may be aware of my tweets stating reasons why I will be voting YES in Scotland's independence referendum on 18 September 2014. In this series of short articles I aim to explain and expand upon those short statements. The numbering of the articles should not be taken to suggest any order of preference or importance.

I'll vote YES for reasons quite incomprehensible to those
who imagine I might be persuaded by an "economic argument".

I am often asked what persuaded me that Scotland should be independent. Irritating as it may be to answer a question with another question, I am obliged to respond by asking why I should need to be persuaded. For me, the idea that Scotland is a nation like any other, and should enjoy the same status as other nations, takes precedence over all other arguments. Independence is the starting point for all discussion, not the conclusion.

Anti-independence forces have sought to shape the debate quite differently. They have tried, with considerable success, to frame the constitutional question in such a way that the entirely normal condition of independence is the thing that has to be justified rather than the fact that Scotland is in the position of being an exception to that norm. With the aid of much of the mainstream media, those urging the preservation of the union have managed to promulgate the insidious notion that the whole issue is a matter of hard facts, objective evidence, and cold calculation. Get enough people sufficiently convinced that "certainty" is both possible and necessary and your propaganda effort becomes a trivially simple matter of pointing out the inevitable and glaringly obvious fact that no such certainty has been provided. Hence the incessant stream of scare stories emanating from Better Together, the UK government and the British political parties. Hence too, their obsessive focus on apparently uncountable "questions". It matters not at all that there may be no basis for the scare stories, or that the questions are either totally irrelevant, downright silly or previously answered. All that matters is that uncertainty be generated and aggravated.

In particular, anti-independence propaganda has focused on the economy. There are basically two reasons for this. The received wisdom that all electoral choices are ultimately driven by economic considerations. And the ease with which economic data and analysis can be manipulated to produce the desired scary messages. Unionists want people to accept the idea that, uniquely among the nations of the world, Scotland must pass some sort of contrived and constantly shifting economic test in order to qualify for the right to be independent. They want us to believe that there is some sort of algorithm by which the viability and efficacy of being a normal nation can be calculated if only one is provided with the right inputs.

I reject such notions completely.

Independence is the default status of nations. All other considerations, including economic considerations, are subsidiary and subsequent to this. Even if it were possible to concoct such a thing, Scotland requires no proven economic case to justify independence.

I'll vote Yes on September 18 2014 because I accept the normality of independence and progress from there to consideration of the issues that arise from the transition out of the anomaly of a democratically deficient asymmetric union and into Scotland's rightful status as a sovereign independent nation.
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Thursday, 2 May 2013

Beware the language police!

I think there's a point being missed in all this Calman stooshie. And it's not a point about Susan Calman - who is all but irrelevant to the issue. On the basis of her reported comments I would dismiss Calman as a second or third-rate wannabe comedian who has essayed a bit of satire without grasping the essential point that the crucial prerequisite of effective satire is a solid grasp of the subject matter. To this the good satirist will add some hopefully thought-provoking observational quirkiness that causes amusement.

Satire points up uncomfortable truths. Satire does not perpetuate the myths that prop up conventional power.

Satire is clever, in every sense of that term. I see no evidence of cleverness in Calman's remarks about the referendum debate. I see only a crude and distinctly unfunny resort to facile stereotypes and lazy misconceptions. Criticising a self-proclaimed comedian for failure in their chosen craft is not abuse. It is merely criticism.

Satire also takes a stand. Something which Calman assiduously avoids doing. Satire is committed. It has a point to make. There is no such thing as idle satire. It is never benign. It always has a target and it should never be in doubt who or what the target is. Calman tried to pass off as satire something that plainly wasn't the real deal. It is right that her audience should feel short-changed. Perhaps even cheated.

But neither is satire or humour the real point here. This is not about whether something is funny or not. There is no possibility of a definitive answer to that question. Evidently, some people thought Calman's tediously unoriginal comments were hilarious. I can only feel as embarrassed for them as I do for her. Poking a stick at the political establishment is a worthy pursuit. Pandering to ill-informed prejudice only serves to expose those afflicted by such prejudice.

The real point here is the way in which the anti-independence campaign has leapt upon what was, for the most part, no more than a perfectly unremarkable and entirely predictable reaction to an equally unremarkable and commonplace attempt at comedy that turned out to be somewhat ill-judged and just plain unfunny. Rather than discussing some insignificant performer, we should be taking a close look at the political players in all of this. Rather than asking questions about the nature of comedy, we should be asking what is the purpose of the hysterical sensationalising of a few critical comments.

What does the anti-independence campaign hope to achieve by making such an inordinate fuss about something of so little substance?

There is, of course, the obvious propaganda angle. The ongoing effort to create an impression of independence supporters as a bitter, bilious mob. It is a variation of a propaganda technique known as projection or flipping in which you take whatever it is that you are open to being accused of and accuse your opponent of doing the same thing - but first and worst. You see it all the time as evident racists attempt to brand their opponents as racist.

But the ultimate purpose is more insidious. The aim is to control and constrain debate by intimidation. To have every independence supporter afraid to put their head above the parapet for fear of being branded with whatever unpleasant epithet is currently in vogue with the largely unionist mainstream media.

This is the kind of power that the media loves to wield just for its own sake - making it all the easier for the political propagandist to turn that power to their own purposes. It is the power commonly deployed in the ever-popular game of Let's Force A Resignation! But the game here is to make every pro-independence voice hesitant and wary. To make everyone who would speak out for the restoration of Scotland's rightful constitutional status over-cautious to the point of banality.

It is an attempt to dictate not only the terms of the debate but to control, without even the pretence of impartiality, the very language in which that debate is conducted. The distillation of the unionists' argument here - eagerly and unthinkingly picked up on by those anxious to be perceived as "good" nationalists - is that opponents of independence have unfettered freedom of expression while others must self-censor or suffer the consequences.

I, for one, will have none of it! I am happy to defend Susan Calman's right to be as embarrassingly unfunny as she wants. But the quid pro quo is my right to say just how unfunny and out of her depth I find her. And to say it in my own way without being subject to the dour rigours of some self-appointed language police.

This is the most important political debate in any of our lifetimes! If that is not cause for passion then what is? Unionists would suck all the passion out of the debate leaving only the dour calculations of the dismal science and a litany of smears and fears to which we are permitted to respond with nothing stronger than a bit of heavy tutting.

Fuck that!
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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Distinct voices

In a piece in today's Herald, the paper's Political Editor, Magnus Gardham, displays his signature misunderstanding of Scotland's independence campaign by representing disagreement between SNP leader, Alex Salmond and Yes Scotland chair, Dennis Canavan, on the issue of a post-independence currency union with rUK in terms of a "split" within a single "nationalist" movement. It is not.

What we have here is disagreement between people representing two quite separate elements of that independence campaign. One of these, Yes Scotland, exists for the purpose of channelling diverse strands of Scottish political opinion into the debate on Scotland's constitutional future. The other, the Scottish National Party, exists for the purpose of winning and retaining political power.

Of course, the anti-independence campaign has a vested interest in blurring the distinction between these two organisation - in much the same way as it seeks to generate uncertainty and confusion about every issue relating to Scotland's independence. Better Together epitomises the politics of fear and this requires that they should undermine the confidence of the people of Scotland at every opportunity by denigrating our institutions; belittling our achievements and disparaging our potential. It is certainly not the way most of us hoped that the campaign would be conducted. But we must remember that the unionists are predominantly operating under the odious influence of Westminster and the British party system, and we should lower our expectations accordingly.

Yes Scotland represents the politics of hope. The politics of bold ambition. The politics of noble aspiration. Such things are anathema to most politicians. In the TV comedy. Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby could always be sure of deterring James Hacker from any course of action simply by describing it as "brave". There is no more cowrin', timorous beastie than the politician in pursuit of power. But, fearful as they may be of the more worthy aspects of politics, these politicians nonetheless know that they cannot easily attack things like hope, ambition and aspiration for the simple reason that these are commonly held to be good qualities. Indeed. most politicians will strive to associate themselves with such qualities to whatever extent that they can short of actually making them part of their own politics. And they will attack them in others only to the extent of using such terms as "unrealistic" and "woolly-minded".

It is easier to attack a politician than an aspiration. So unionists attack Alex Salmond while trying to pretend that Yes Scotland does not exist. Or, at least, that it does not exist as a separate entity distinct from the SNP.

But it would be wrong to say that this failure to distinguish between the SNP and Yes Scotland is simply a result of Better Together propaganda. To be brutally frank, they are just not that good. Even with the assistance of a mainstream media that, through ignorance, prejudice or just plain laziness, has aided the unionist propaganda effort, the fact remains that this effort has been clumsy and inept. It should have been easy to counter. We are entitled now to ask why this hasn't happened. Why has Yes Scotland failed to chart its own course through the referendum debate? Why has the organisation so signally failed to develop a voice of its own clearly distinguishing it from the SNP? Why does it continue to show such deference to Alex Salmond and the SNP?

Perhaps more pertinent are the questions that must be addressed to the SNP. Why has the SNP failed to encourage Yes Scotland to be the campaigning organisation it was always intended to be? Why has the party made it so easy for the impression to be given that Yes Scotland is what unionists always wanted to claim it was - nothing more than a front for the SNP?

Contrary to an all too common belief, it was never in the SNP's interests that it should "control" Yes Scotland. The SNP was always going to be best served by hiving-off the broader constitutional issue in order that it could focus on it own constitutional policy. The SNP is not really in the business of fighting the referendum campaign. It is focused on the 2015 UK elections and the 2016 Scottish elections. Which is not to say that it has no interest in the outcome of the referendum. Of course it does! But the SNP is a political party. It cannot be other than principally focused on the elections by which it wins power. Setting up Yes Scotland should have freed the SNP to pursue its party political objectives safe in the knowledge that the main campaign for a Yes vote was being carried forward by people committed to restoring Scotland's constitutional status but not encumbered by any "party line".

What has gone wrong?

My own view is that the SNP leadership's strategy was good. But the strategy has not filtered down to other levels of the party. Alex Salmond and his team were rightly confident that they could create and maintain a clear distinction between the SNP and Yes Scotland at the highest levels of the two organisations. What they failed to take due account of was what would happen when the new kids on the block of Yes Scotland's grass-roots groups encountered the famously formidable machinery of the SNP at branch level. And the relatively small number of individuals who hold the levers of that machinery.

Magnus Gardham is quite wrong to suggest that Alex Salmond might be at all discomfited by Dennis Canavan's intervention on the matter of a currency union. Salmond will quietly welcome such interventions. This is Yes Scotland doing the job it was created to do. Elsewhere in the SNP, however, the distinctive voice of Canavan and Yes Scotland will strike a discordant note. Elsewhere in the SNP distinctive voices are distinctly unwelcome. They are regarded as being dangerously off-message. The danger is that, at the place where it matters most - the interface with voters, the distinctive voices of Yes Scotland are being actively discouraged and, in some instances, silenced completely.

Both Salmond and Jenkins urgently need to get a grip of their troops. Jenkins needs to inspire his people to be more assertive in proclaiming the big ideas of independence. The "brave" ideas that do not sit well with party politicians. Salmond needs to impress on the SNP's local cliques the fact that the party has nothing to fear from a strong, autonomous Yes Scotland with its own distinctive voice.
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