Scottish independence: negative campaign failing?

GROWING evidence suggests negative referendum campaigning is running out of steam, writes Natalie McGarry.

Alistair Darling launches the Better Together campaign with Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie. Picture: PA
Alistair Darling launches the Better Together campaign with Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie. Picture: PA

Reports circulated yesterday suggested that shadowy “senior sources” in the UK coalition government are confident and are pre-empting a No vote in next year’s referendum, which remains over a year away. Given the current favoured narrative that both the Yes and No Campaigns are yet to make significant impact on the wider public consciousness, and polls based on the referendum question have remained fairly static, this type of over-confidence and arrogance of Whitehall self-styling themselves as the “professionals v amateurs” may be a gift to the Yes movement.

Napoleon is widely reported with cautioning his troops a variation on, “let us wait a little; when your enemy is executing a false movement, never interrupt him”. Complacency as a campaigning technique may be the latest in a series of false moves by the No campaign. Given the relative disconnect between the Scottish electorate and the UK coalition government, any acceptance that this is an informed opinion should be cautionary at best. Quite simply, despite the opinion polls still favouring a No vote at present, there is much research to suggest that sections of the No vote are brittle.

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What has clarified over recent months is that the No Campaign is conducting a crash-and-burn approach to messaging and narrative. They have been successful since the Edinburgh Agreement in capturing – and sometimes maintaining for sustained periods – lurid headlines in print and broadcast media which give voice to their concerns that Scotland does not meet an hypothetical litmus test for operating as a successful independent country. When facts or alternative arguments intrude, causing them to crash and burn, they are ever ready with a new test – a constitutional Mobius strip.

However, the relentless bombardment of the Yes campaign and media with massaged facts and figures may have exposed the No campaign’s strategy rather sooner than they would have liked. Sparta’s Lycurgus reputedly said, “they should not make war often, or long, with the same enemy, lest that they should train and instruct them in war, by habituating them to defend themselves”. Whilst the independence referendum is in no way a war in the traditional sense, there is much rhetoric about winning battles of “hearts and minds”, or the airwaves – especially from senior No campaign figures like Alistair Darling.

There is a certain truth in the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt”, and it is evident to see that the print media at least, are starting to ask rather more pertinent questions about how the No campaign – and especially the strategists at Better Together – interpret and present information as fact. Despite clearly defined editorial positions, it is not credible that journalists accept as veritas any information from either side of the independence debate. Just this weekend a Sunday newspaper disproved UK government assertions about the cost of Trident removal. The press is still a big beast and there is every indication it is starting to awaken.

Membership of the European Union, an AAA+ credit rating, a UK-wide Royal Mail – all are examples of the litmus test set by the No campaign.

Applying the same test to the UK, we now know that if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015, due to the pressure of the rise of Ukip which is not mirrored in Scotland, that there will be an in-out referendum on EU membership in 2017. Scotland could easily be in the European wilderness if we vote No, which was cautioned as a horrendous consequence only earlier this year.

The UK’s AAA+ rating is now only a construct of Better Together HQ, as the coalition government continues to bury its head in the sand.

The coalition government’s plan to sell off the Royal Mail transpired less than a week after the No campaign warned of the dangers of separate postal services and the rising cost of a stamp. Having seen the consequences of previous privatisations, the danger is all from right-wing shock doctrine, not independence.

If the public are indeed listening, they must hope that the No campaign are careful what they wish for. It seems the UK government is using their independence litmus test as a policy of what not to do. In effect, hoist by their own petard.

Given the implosion of some of the key No campaign arguments, it is not inconceivable that the Yes campaign is relatively comfortable with the notion that this will start to create voter mistrust in the No argument. There can only be so many warnings posited with all the critical rigour of Play-Doh before it becomes not so much a case of the boy who cried wolf; rather a choir of lupine voices. The Scottish electorate are a canny lot, and once engaged, both sides will be expected to answer pertinent questions.

If the Yes campaign wants to capitalise on the failure of the No campaign to competently manage their message, it should ensure that their alternative approach is based on absolute transparency. This means admitting there is no one answer where it is impossible to accurately divine it.

However, given that this vote is actually about democracy and power, not policy, the Yes campaign have the harder but more rewarding task of imagining something different; of opportunity and fairness.

It is all too easy to gauge what a No vote will result in; more of the same – or worse – regardless of the hue of the UK government.

We should not be forced in to choosing least worst, we should have the ambition to aim for best. We have a choice of two paths. On recent events, one certainly isn’t as clear cut as Better Together would have you believe.