John Mullin: Soaring Scots political engagement

THERE was a world of difference between the authentic election in Scotland and the sterile event south of the Border, writes John Mullin.

Jim Murphy made the most of the difficult hand he was dealt, campaigning with gusto throughout. Picture: Getty
Jim Murphy made the most of the difficult hand he was dealt, campaigning with gusto throughout. Picture: Getty

Long ago, as a young reporter, and no doubt fancying myself as the next Woodward or Bernstein, I applied for a prestigious internship at the Washington Post. The interview was going swimmingly until I unveiled my big idea in what was the year of a US presidential election.

It was to find a red-neck couple of hill-billies who had never heard of George Bush senior, then four years in situ, and to tell their story as some sort of morality tale of contemporary America: how this great citadel of freedom and democracy was foundering. Unfortunately, I misjudged my audience.

There was a whistling intake of breath, and the handsome face of the great Ben Bradlee fell. This colossus of an editor had brought down Richard Nixon, bravely and to great acclaim. He simply couldn’t conceive that anyone wouldn’t know who his or her commander-in-chief was. It was self-evidently a ridiculous idea, and so my American ambitions crashed.

I thought of this as I listened to the Today programme on Radio 4 last week. In one of those interminable constituency profiles – somewhere in Manchester, I think – the reporter was asking a good-natured young mechanic who the prime minister was. He genuinely didn’t have a clue.

So, a grim sort of vindication, 23 years on from that internship interview. But, in truth, it wasn’t really that much of a surprise.

We heard so much about disconnect during this general election campaign, meaning the chasm between the political classes at Westminster and the voters. It presented in England as apathy, ignorance and hopelessness, and maybe even a vote for Ukip.

Yet here in Scotland, it found a completely different expression. It sparked the most incredible election battle ever. Disconnected from Westminster? Right, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Ask yourself this: could the radio reporter have found someone similar in Scotland: anyone unable to name the PM or the first minister? Like Bradlee all these years ago, I find it unthinkable.

There were two distinct campaigns over these last few weeks: what was happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom – uninformed, listless, pointless – and what was going on in Scotland – informed, energetic, celebratory even. They truly were parallel universes.

Down south, the general election campaign of 2015 will be remembered as woeful, shameful, even. The major parties took what might call the Approach Of The Lowest Common Denominator. So terrified were they of a mistake, they played it claustrophobically safe.

In this air war, they avoided meeting the very people whose votes they were seeking for fear of that “Gillian Duffy moment” which hit Gordon Brown last time round. All photo-calls were behind a cordon sanitaire, in out-of-town centres where no member of the public ever ventured.

Television and radio interviews illuminated nothing, except a penchant to avoid the question and to stick irritatingly to sound-bite. TV footage was hyper controlled. The parties didn’t dare do press conferences, lest any proper journalists – that is, newspaper types – got the chance to challenge.

The Tories and Labour were, from the first whistle, playing for penalties.

The Scottish experience? Well, it’s broken all the rules meant to apply in politics these days. Particularly when those rules are devised by public schoolboys with philosophy, politics and economics degrees from Oxbridge who become special advisers and maybe frontline politicians without ever experiencing real life.

It’s not just Nicola Sturgeon who takes praise for Scotland’s vivacious campaign: Ruth Davidson has been fearsomely impressive; Jim Murphy has fought a losing battle valiantly; and Willie Rennie is one of the most decent people you’ll meet in politics. There is in them an authenticity, a connectivity, that eludes Cameron, Miliband and Clegg.

Credit where it is due, though. It is Sturgeon and the SNP who have made the running.

Take mass membership. According to the Westminster Insiders’ Manual, it no longer matters much. After all, Labour and Tory memberships have been tanking for years, and they’ve all but given up on trying to recruit. Such an old-fashioned concept in the modern age, don’t you know?

The SNP’s membership, of course, is up four-fold since the referendum, and it means one in 50 Scots is a party member. That’s a big army to fight a ground war.

Then there’s how you get your message across. That mass membership – according to the Westminster approach – is generally to be avoided because it’s an ill-disciplined rabble. Ditto the general public, who may even be treated with near contempt.

Never, say these SW1 rules, hold a town hall meeting or go out on the stump: far better to concentrate fire on a few tame political editors or newspaper columnists with a hardline, consistent, unambitious media message. Maybe with a few Tweets thrown in, to look “down with the kids”.

And what have we seen? Ferries on the west of Scotland being delayed because literally thousands of people want to see Sturgeon as she flies around in her helicopter. She addressed crowds across the country; talked one-to-one with voters; and posed with outrageous patience for, well, thousands of selfies. All in front of the cameras.

It was, of course, a much more daunting prospect for the other Scottish leaders to engage. They didn’t enjoy the numbers of supporters or the fiesta atmosphere which accompanied Sturgeon throughout. All the more credit, then, to Davidson and Murphy for street fighting, for telling it as they saw it, in a way that would have given Cameron and Miliband palpitations.

Scottish politics wasn’t about safety first. It was ambitious. You might even criticise Sturgeon for taking it too far in the last few days – talking up what she wants at Westminster and torturing her opponents like Jim Baxter at Wembley in 1967. Too gallus, maybe. But at least she isn’t playing for penalties.

Politicians down south can discount what happened here in Scotland as near-hysteria, simply the dangerous legacy of the independence referendum. Perhaps.

But the Westminster Insiders’ Manual needs an extensive re-write, and the authors need to learn the lessons of Scotland. No matter what your political view, authenticity, positivity and hope will trump sterility, defensiveness and fear every time.