Top-down approach of Better Together campaign is out of touch with grass roots opinion, writes Lesley Riddoch
What is the political buzzword of this quite extraordinary weekend?
It could be Molehunt – after shock revelations that a mystery cabinet minister thinks currency union could be negotiated post-independence after all. It could be Sunshine – after repeated attempts at the Scottish Lib Dem conference to lighten the profoundly negative mood of the No campaign. It could be Hunger – after “the man in charge of Scotland,” Alistair Carmichael, said nationalists had a greater “hunger” for victory and this could create unstoppable momentum for a Yes vote.
But whilst these hopeful buzzwords and associated spectacular climb-downs have been memorable, another phrase really sticks in my mind. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott’s use of the “big beasts” and his impassioned plea for Labour to swiftly roll out its under-deployed weapons – Gordon Brown, ex-Home Secretary John Reid and ex-Nato Secretary-General George Robertson. It sounds sensible but it sells the liberal tradition (further) down the river and completely misunderstands the success of the Yes Campaign.With this wide-eyed hero worship of the past, the entitled and the largely absent, Tavish sums up almost everything that’s been wrong with Union politics for decades – and what’s currently crippling the No campaign.
Firstly, there’s stubborn belief in the silver bullet – that single authoritative voice which will calm babies and silence all dissent. It doesn’t exist. Extensive BBC research in the early 90s found the over-50s prefer opinion to be handed down like tablets of stone by the great and good. But the under-50s detest this and want a variety of views, picking the one that most closely matches their own. It may be delivered by a judge or a janny – the BBC found the status of speakers didn’t matter to this under-50s cohort. As a result, the ponderous voices of authority were reduced to 15-second sound bites and news reports contained a range of opinions from ordinary citizens (though clearly not enough of a range in BBC indyref coverage). The BBC has known and acted upon this knowledge for almost 20 years. Why has it taken so long for mainstream politicians to catch up?
Bear in mind that the “tablets of stone” generation sampled by the BBC are now 70-somethings. Of course, this age group does vote. But attaching importance to former status is as last season as it’s possible to get. Ironically, the only truly big unionist beast out there – in performance terms – is George Wildebeest Galloway. He’s not resting on his laurels – there are none. But this anarchic, divisive and arrogant figure is evidently too hot to trot for “steady as we go” Better Together – as successful and deeply loathed as the Nationalists. George Robertson – after long years at the helm of Nato – is invisible by comparison. And yet Tavish’s list puts him top and Galloway nowhere. That’s a revealing, tactical mistake.
Secondly, it’s a terrible indictment of Holyrood parliamentarians to defer to men from another party who chose to serve in another parliament furth of Scotland. Tavish argues SNP dominance means the Scottish public cannot recognise the current Scottish Labour team, but might clock old-timers from pre-devolution days. That’s possibly true. It’s also like trying to resurrect a TV channel by playing repeats of Steptoe and Son.
Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown do indeed have recognition value. For many Scots they and the personable John Reid make up the Scottish team at Westminster that nonetheless failed to regulate banks, failed to stop the renewal of Trident, failed to argue against the disastrous Iraq War, failed to tackle greed and detachment in British society, opted to counter poverty by stealth and brought the British economy to its knees. Ironically, their Scottish ethnicity may score higher than their record for some voters. But how many will be motivated beyond the moment and turn out to vote in September?
Of course the same could be asked of new and wavering voters recently converted by the Yes camp. But at the moment, they are receiving reminders about the merits of their choice every day courtesy of the mainstream media and the No campaign’s spectacular and self-inflicted fall from grace.
There’s another vital source of influence that’s been too readily discounted by Better Together and political commentators alike: neighbours, local people, Facebook friends and the organised, non-party political activists who make up the Yes campaign.
Finally, and most seriously, Tavish’s invocation of the Big Beasts buys into a “top-down” model of influence and decision-making, which denies the “local” and “small is beautiful” heritage which used to be the essence of Liberalism. The energy, creativity, focus, commitment and near-spontaneous self-organisation of Yes supporters should make liberals hang their heads with shame. This sustained grassroots activism and optimism will one day be acknowledged as the genuine power within the Yes campaign. But currently it’s beneath the radar. The conventional, mainstream Unionist world is attuned to large events, official announcements and powerful players. It cannot detect small change happening everywhere and voluntary, local effort. It doesn’t register fun. It cannot rate the small army of young filmmakers and social media users it dismisses as “cybernats”. It cannot acknowledge the self-education underway as Scots read voraciously – making up for lost time. It cannot value the transformational power of that moment when an individual leaves the comfort zone of non-involvement to become active – prepared to publicly support a political movement (perhaps) for the first time in their lives. This inability to assess the power of everyday change also beset the newspapers and pundits who failed to predict the SNP’s success in 2007 and 2011.
The Yes campaign aims to be up close, personal, grassroots, spontaneous and non-hierarchical. The No campaign does not. And all the sunshine in the world won’t change that top-down orientation.
Slow, small, steady, incremental change is the way any body heals – even the body politic. Of course it’s possible the Yes campaign becomes over-optimistic, smug and repellently self-congratulatory – as Neil Kinnock did with his premature victory party way back in 1992. But after all the assaults on solidarity and citizenship these long, hopeless years – something wider is evident in the activism of the Yes campaign.
The day of the silver bullet solution and the big beasts has gone. And the day of the wee, once timorous beasties has finally arrived.