Alex Massie: Message that matters most

The SNP has a powerful but pithy slogan and a leader also seen as strong. Picture: Getty
The SNP has a powerful but pithy slogan and a leader also seen as strong. Picture: Getty
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While rival parties have produced platitudes, the SNP have an election slogan that is short, sweet and above all memorable, and that is what will win the public vote, says Alex Massie

SOMETIMES the answer to even complex political problems is simpler and more apparent than you think. Sometimes the answer is right in front of your face. All you need to do is open your eyes. Take, for instance, the art of the campaign slogan. It isn’t the case that winners always have the best or most memorable lines but it is usually true that the campaign with the most effective one-line distillation of its message is the campaign most likely to be going places.

The Tories' slogan Labour Isn't Working in 1979

The Tories' slogan Labour Isn't Working in 1979

Remember “Labour isn’t working?” (Thatcher, 1979) or “It’s Morning Again in America” (Reagan, 1984) or, more recently, the wonderfully simple, yet powerful, slogan that helped carry Barack Obama to the White House: “Yes We Can”? In each instance, the campaign’s single most important organising idea was summed up in a handful of words. The message was simple, easy to understand, and persuasive.

You might think finding this message an easy business but it is not. It’s actually extraordinarily difficult. If you doubt this, think of the failures. “In your heart, you know he’s right” was Barry Goldwater’s campaign mantra in the 1964 presidential election, a slogan which drew the withering response “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”.

Similarly, the 2005 Conservative bumper-sticker “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” all but begged for the response “Good God, No”.

Which brings us to 2015 where the Tory message is “Together, we can secure a brighter future” and Labour offer “A Better Plan for a Better Future”. I submit that neither of these will be remembered in six months time, let alone the years to come. By contrast, the SNP’s three-word pitch “Stronger for Scotland” is hardly subtle nor even especially elegant but it has a directness and a promise that, relative to its rivals, makes it seem like the work of Don Draper at his best.

Elections, in the end, are about ideas and identity. Voters are asked to identify themselves with a party, not just because it has the best ideas but because, in some inchoate sense, doing so says something about the voters themselves. This is what I believe but, more importantly, this is who I am.

And that, in the end, is why the SNP is winning this election. Not because it has the best ideas but because it has the clearest position. Never mind the detail, feel the broad sweep of history and join the winning team as we march towards a glorious, or at least better, future.

Of course, it is easier for the SNP to make this kind of easily remembered pledge. “Stronger for Britain” would be a less effective slogan for either David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Because, well, who would think their opponents don’t also want Britain to be stronger? The bumper-sticker would be meaningless blather.

But because the SNP have, with startling success, positioned themselves as the only acceptable guarantors of the Scottish national interest they are able to suggest, none too subtly, that their rivals can never be trusted to put Scotland “first”. There is something discreditable about this but, nevertheless, the Nationalists have persuaded a plurality of Scots that the national interest is largely the same as the SNP’s interest.

That this is not actually necessarily the case matters much less than the fact many voters are prepared to accept that it is. More importantly still, because the SNP are trusted to “have their heart in the right place”, their failures are more easily forgiven. Many voters do not hold the SNP to the same standards they hold other parties.

It also helps explain why broadsides on the SNP’s record in government or its plans for the future fire a smaller weight of shot than might be imagined. Supporting the SNP is less about agreeing with its policies – or even its record – than it is a confident declaration of identity.

Add a leader in Nicola Sturgeon whose “authenticity” is as abundant as it is evident to see and you have the basis for an electoral juggernaut. Ms Sturgeon isn’t just “likeable”, she’s the kind of politician voters actually want to like (the distinction is nuanced but important). As a lifelong politician, she is hardly “ordinary” but her background – the smart working-class lassie from a provincial town who has made it to the top through hard work and grafting persistence – is intuitively appealing. Many people think they know someone a little like her. Voters can relate to her and she is a “product” with markedly broader appeal than Alex Salmond who, for all his skills, more sharply divided opinion.

Of course, “stronger for Scotland” has been the SNP’s mantra for years. The difference this time is that they may have a real chance to demonstrate how much stronger. Voters believe that the SNP will, for once, be “relevant” in Westminster. In this respect, reality has finally caught up with Nationalist rhetoric.

For this, Ms Sturgeon should thank Ed Miliband. If Labour were cruising to a convincing victory across the UK there would, I think, be a much smaller revolt in Scotland. Some of those habitual Labour supporters who voted Yes in the referendum would still have left for the SNP but, in general, Scottish Labour’s weakness owes something to the party’s weakness in England too.

The SNP’s “outsider” status is also useful for a party promising marginalised and disillusioned voters that, yes, there is another way. The party is unencumbered by the awkward compromises necessary to win across the wide and varied United Kingdom. It has free rein for its unfettered populism.

But, in the end, elections are about messages and the people selling those messages. Who can best tap into an unexpressed communal feeling? Who gives voice to that vague collective sentiment? In this contest it is no contest. The SNP has the best, simplest and most powerful message and is led by the best, or certainly most effective, leader. Of course they are winning.