A number of conversations with individuals in the last week brought home to me forcibly again the fact that a large number of people are against independence and a significant number described themselves as unconvinced. I am left, not for the first time, with the uneasy feeling that what I do – blogging, tweeting, YouTube clipping – is reinforcing the commitment of those already committed to independence but is contributing little to shifting the perceptions that must be shifted to achieve a decisive YES vote.
This week at both Scottish questions and PMQs in Westminster, an orchestrated chorus of very dubious provenance sang stridently of the benefits of the Union and the evils of Scottish independence. This hellish choir comprised the usual suspects – Scottish Labour MPs whose jobs will vanish like snaw aff a dyke post independence, and Scottish MPs in English constituencies engaged in that most contemptible activity an expatriate Scot can engage in – talking down his or her country in an effort to curry favour with the host country. (The motivation for Scottish MPs in English constituencies doing this is all too apparent – to reassure their English constituents that they are not to be regarded with suspicion, because they are, in fact, stridently anti-independence.)
The choir is conducted by Michael Moore at Scottish questions and David Cameron at PMQs, as they spew out their misrepresentations, factoids and scare stories.
HOW DOES THE SNP REGARD ALL THIS?
The SNP group of MPs at Scottish questions can often seem a lonely, put-upon and beleaguered little group. They patently would rather not be there – and who can blame them for feeling that – and their efforts to put the record straight and ask pertinent questions are often frustrated by derisive noises off and patronising, dismissive replies. While this feeds the politics of insult, beneficial to the nationalist cause (as I know from the response to such clips on YouTube) their questions rarely make any real impact.
And I have to say at times they seem to miss open goals.
While their opponents are spreading misinformation in assertive sound bites, the SNP group often seems to be making arcane points of detail which, however relevant, seems to get lost in the factoid fog of the unionists. Mike Weir’s response on the credit rating agencies point at this week’s Scottish Questions seemed to me an example of this – worthy, accurate and totally lacking in impact.
We have a minimum of two and a half years to the referendum, Michael Moore notwithstanding, and I speculate on what the SNP campaign strategy is in relation to this increasing miasma of misinformation. A blizzard of press releases emanate daily from the party on every subject under the sun, and undoubtedly some of these hit their mark and lead to stories in the media. I try to do my bit with them by tweeting the essence of the message when it seems appropriate.
One strategy the SNP may be pursuing is to let the Campaign to block Scotland’s independence - run by the unspeakable Labour/Tory/LibDem coalition for the safeguarding of the UK gravy train - exhaust itself by premature ejaculations in the early period of the referendum lead-in period then, in the post-consultation period, begin to deliver major detailed policy statements. The unionist incontinence will then leave them enfeebled and unable to respond effectively to cogent and coherent SNP detailed policy statements.
If this is the strategy, then I understand it and see the advantages of it. But there is a potential downside - that the unionist factoids and misrepresentations might take root in the minds of the electorate, and be difficult or impossible to shift in time for the referendum.
So where does this leave us?
PERCEPTIONS OF THE ELECTORATE
I position myself in all that I say as a voter, not as an expert. I have no insider knowledge, and no specialised economic expertise. So what what I have to say here is anecdotal, based on my range of contacts, and cannot compete with what I hope is the superb Activate database of the SNP and the analytical and campaigning skills of those utilising the information. But here goes …
I see the following broad categories of voters -
1. The informed and committed
2. The uninformed and committed
3. The informed but uncommitted.
4. The uniformed and uncommitted.
I see the following motivations/perceptions among all of the above groups in relation to independence -
1. The UK is dysfunctional and only independence will provide a remedy for Scotland. Nothing short of national independence can deliver the freedom to act, within a framework of interdependence through membership of European and international organisations, e.g. EU, UN, NATO, Partnership for Peace.
2. The UK is dysfunctional but can be improved by measures short of independence, e.g. more devolution of powers to Scotland. Full independence is a bridge too far.
3. The UK is grappling with international problems common to all countries at the moment, but is coping and will cope with them. Independence is a dangerous distraction.
4. What’s all the fuss about? We (the UK) have done alright for 300 years. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
5. The entire political system in the Western world is corrupt, dysfunctional and only radical global action will remedy it. Nationalism is a distraction from this great internationalist goal.
The informed and committed will have already decided their positions based on their understanding of the facts, their own priorities, and to some degree on emotional considerations, which may be very powerful determinants of their position. Although some of this group may radically shift their position before the referendum, the numbers are likely to be small, unless some major event or events swing the balance powerfully towards a YES or a NO vote, e.g. a radical economic shift or a political scandal of some sort. Events, dear boy – events!
The uninformed and committed may well contain a majority who have placed emotion before reason in determining their position, and will therefore not be easily moved by facts. But some of this group may simply be uninformed and may shift their commitment if they engage fully with the arguments, i.e. they can be persuaded by factual argument. This segment of opinion is therefore crucial.
The informed but uncommitted and the uniformed and uncommitted are clearly fundamental targets for information and persuasion.
THE COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS AND QUESTIONS OVER INDEPENDECE
Here are some of the misconceptions and questions that I have experienced from my range of contacts, and from my scrutiny of press and media comment. These are assiduously fed by unionist politicians, but not necessarily created by them, and there are genuine questions in the minds of the as yet uncommitted.
1. The SNP and Alex Salmond have not spelled out what independence means.
2. Big is best – the most effective political groupings are the largest, therefore Scotland should stay in the UK.
3. Scots would be poorer after independence – it is reliant on the rest of the UK – i.e. England, essentially – to subsidise it.
4. The Scottish economic case rest on oil revenues, and oil is a declining asset.
5. As a small country, Scotland would have little influence in Europe, in the United Nations, in NATO (if it remained a member) and in global trade.
6. More devolution of power while remaining in the UK would be best for Scotland.
7. The SNP commitment to a constitutional monarchy that retains the Queen and her lawful heirs is an expedient political device to reassure monarchists, but would be speedily abandoned after independence by a referendum.
8. Adopting sterling as an independent Scotland’s currency and accepting the Bank of England as the central bank in a currency union would effectively mean that Scotland was not independent in any real sense.
9. Scotland might not be acceptable as an EU member after independence, and if it was a member, it would be forced into the Eurozone and adoption of the euro as Scotland’s currency.
10. The independence of Scotland would create a relationship rift with the rest of the UK, and have a deleterious effect on relationship with our nearest neighbours and create strains with friends and family in the rest of the UK.
11. It would be difficult or impossible to create an independent Scottish defence force, and servicemen and women would be forced into difficult or impossible choices.
12. An independent Scotland would experience high unemployment caused by the loss of defence jobs and contracts.
These are not the only misconceptions and factoids by any means, but they are the ones I encounter most frequently. From my perspective, none of them are accurate, or they betray an understandable failure to comprehend either the nature of independence or the diplomatic and negotiating dynamics of achieving it.
I will return to all of them and try to demonstrate why I think they are misperceptions. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with Gordon Brewer and Crawford Beveridge, with Gordon struggling to understand the distinction between interdependence – and its constraints - in the modern world in relation to independence in a currency union.