Stephen Noon: Embracing the independence debate

Bill Clinton’s appearance at the Scottish Business Awards last week was very well received and the loudest applause of the evening came when he said of the referendum in 2014: “You will come out of this better, regardless, if you go about it in the right way.”

Bill Clinton gave a speech at the Scottish Business Awards at the EICC, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow

We will define the sort of country we become by both the nature of the debate we conduct, but also by the issues at the heart of the debate. If No scrapes a victory (or holds a winning Yes to a narrow margin) on the basis of a campaign designed to frighten people, a campaign that relishes undermining the people of Scotland’s confidence in their own abilities, then the nation that emerges will be a poorer one in the most important sense.

Just a few days after the former US president’s words, a Sunday paper revealed that some within the No campaign describe what they are doing as “Project Fear”. The very fact that people in the official No campaign feel able to admit this to a journalist tells us a massive amount about that organisation one year into its life. It is a rather unattractive mixture of complacency and conceit, and one that offers a real insight into its motivation and method: it regards a confidence-sapping campaign of fear – regardless of the damage it might do to Scotland – as a price worth paying for victory.

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Those of us with a longer memory will recall a similar revelation in 1999 when Douglas Alexander, then a young Labour strategist, called on his party to “engender fear” in Scotland to secure victory over the SNP. But as I think Alexander came to realise, if his more recent contributions are anything to go by, an approach based on fear is one with a very short shelf-life – especially when the other campaign learns how to deal with it. Clinton himself once advised the Labour Party that the story of humanity is marked by our efforts to fulfil our hopes and confront our fears – a campaign lesson that was seized on with enthusiasm, initially, by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, but a lesson that seems, sadly, to have been forgotten.

Hope beats fear, not only because people, in their heart, want to be inspired, but also because the great weakness of fear is that its impact soon fades. I remember as a young child being terrified by the sound of tree branches scratching against my window and sometimes even now, when in a strange house, I will react with a start to an unexpected noise. It is only natural – that fearful reaction is part of what has kept us alive as a species. But after the initial reaction, we add a more rational layer and, over time, and after we’ve heard the scratching at the window or that particular creak two or three times, we learn to be frightened no more.

The No campaign thinks it has delivered a winning start to its campaign, by launching its avalanche of uncertainty as part of Project Fear. But what it thinks is its biggest success is in fact its most significant strategic failure. By the time we come to the referendum, the big No fears of today will have been heard many times; they will have been processed and assessed, put in context, compared to other, alternative information and when Scots go to the polls on referendum day the fears will have been put firmly in their box.

That approach, by its very nature, is designed to fade in its effect, but perhaps most short-sightedly, it is also designed to turn people off. Think about your own social circles, how much time do you want to spend with people who are always talking you down or saying you aren’t good enough, or trying to frighten you into inaction. We are social animals and this referendum is a social campaign and No seems to have forgotten even the most basic rules of personal engagement.

In contrast, the Yes campaign will be saying to the people of Scotland that, yes, there will be work to do and agreements to be reached, but we are more than up to the job of delivering an independent nation, if that is our choice. We’re collectively good enough to do this is a much better message than No’s it’s all too hard and you’re not up to sorting out the details. And it has the great advantage of being true.

Can No change direction and add some hope or inspiration to its relentlessly negative campaign? I hope so because it will be better for all of us if both sides can conduct the sort of campaigns that mean we do “come out of this better”.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me whether the No camp runs out of steam with its fears (as it will), or move across to a more positive campaign to try and sell the merits of the political Union. Why? Because I have absolute confidence that the case for Yes is much stronger than any case for No. There are pluses and minuses, strengths and weakness on both sides – that is only to be expected. But when it comes down to it, who can deny that we should entrust our future to the people who care most about our country, that is to ourselves: who wouldn’t want Scotland’s future to be in Scotland’s hands?

The No campaign thinks its biggest strength is fear. However, its biggest weakness is an equally powerful emotion: regret. Just think how we will feel if there is a No vote; if in 2015 we get another government we didn’t vote for; if in 2016 we’re taken out of the European Union against our own expressed wishes; if in 2017 there are new welfare changes that introduce a lower rate of payment for people in Scotland; or if in 2018 we are still wasting £250 million a year on nuclear weapons. We’ll regret the lost opportunity that was a Yes in 2014, with an intensity that will be brought to mind again and again. The pain of what could have been will go on.

So, let us not regret the result or the campaign. Let us move forward, and embrace a debate that is about how we build social justice, deliver new economic opportunity and choose the best path based on Scotland’s priorities and needs. In this way, Scotland will emerge into independence with our heads held high. We will release a new energy and enthusiasm, and enter the first years of our new nation with a laser sharp focus on the ways we can create the fairer and more successful country that we all know Scotland can and should be.

• Stephen Noon is chief strategist of Yes Scotland