A wholly upbeat campaign may not be the best idea, but Better Together’s ‘Fear Factor’ scare tactics are turning off many voters, writes Peter Geoghegan
For the past year or so, I’ve been the captain of Edinburgh South cricket club’s fourth team. In that time I’ve learned a lot: that life in the basement division of the East of Scotland cricket league is seldom boring, that in Scotland rain can pour down from a cloudless sky, and that Norman Tebbit was on to something.
Okay, “on to something” is a bit strong – the Conservative grandee’s proposal that British Asians’ fealty be measured by whether or not they supported England at cricket was an awful idea. But the gentlemen’s game, with its staccato rhythm and civic-mindedness, is an excellent place to find out what people think about life, the universe and, when it’s a particularly slow day in the field, constitutional change.
Over the last 15 months, I’ve often asked my players about next year’s referendum, though I like to think that my own “cricket test” is a little less jaundiced than Tebbit’s. And I won’t make any pseudo-scientific claims, but I work with a pretty broad sample: a mix of nationalities, from Scottish and English through to South African and Indian, and a range of occupations and backgrounds.
Like the rest of Scotland, most voted SNP in the 2011 Holyrood elections. And yet for the last year, few of my charges in white have displayed much enthusiasm for disputations on independence. “Not been following it” or “a waste of time” were, for months on end, the most common responses to my not always subtle prodding.
But in recent weeks I’ve detected a slight but noticeable change. More players are bringing up the independence issue. Or, more accurately, more of the players – and even some of the opposition – are waxing irately lyrical about the doom-laden warnings of what would happen if Scotland voted Yes next September.
“I’m so fed up of all this, ‘You’d never survive if you were independent’ stuff,” a rival captain said to me a couple of weeks ago as we walked out to the middle for the pre-match coin toss. A sanguine middle-aged professional, my opposite number was hardly the rabid nationalist trope depicted by Better Together, but the No campaign’s relentless negativity is having an effect on him – just not the effect intended.
Apparently, members of Better Together privately refer to themselves as “Project Fear”. Whether or not that’s true, it sounds entirely plausible. And when it comes to political strategy, believability is worth far more than veracity.
There certainly has been plenty of fear. In the last couple of months we have had everything from the prospect of England bombing Scottish airports after independence in the event of a threat of foreign invasion, to mobile phone roaming charges if we venture over the Border and the possibility of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, our cuddly panda friends at Edinburgh Zoo, being seized by London.
What began as reasonable questions about post-independence policy from the No campaign – Would an independent Scotland automatically join the European Union? What currency would it use? – has descended into an almost daily onslaught of shrill warnings about the sky falling in if Scots vote Yes next September.
Not everyone on the pro-Union side supports this tactic. Just this week, the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish complained, with good reason, that Better Together were “treating Scots like idiots”.
He said: “There are fear and scare stories such as that we’ll have passport controls at the Border and won’t have access to blood transfusion supplies. Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here.”
There is a school of thought – evidently popular in Bute House – that says that in politics, as in Hollywood films, good wins out; that an optimistic narrative will always defeat a pessimistic one. The work of Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, author of Networks of Outrage and Hope, is often adduced in support of this. Castells has argued that responses to politics are primed by two emotions: fear and enthusiasm. Both are powerful, but in a battle of dread versus hope, the latter will win out.
In an interview with a Sunday newspaper at the weekend, Yes Scotland strategist Stephen Noon repeated the refrain that positive campaigns beat negative ones, evoking the holy grail of optimistic messaging – Barack Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In”, which swept him into the White House in 2008.
Positive campaigning has certainly served the SNP well. Their stunning victory at Holyrood two years ago was built on an unashamedly hopeful platform, underpinned by a sophisticated digital strategy. But the case for unremitting optimism is not that clear-cut.
In his latest book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the new America, George Packer, a staff writer on The New Yorker magazine, recounts a meeting between Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel in Silicon Valley in spring 2011. Romney told Thiel his pitch for the presidency would be that, under his leadership, things would automatically be better for ordinary Americans. All they needed was to have the dead hand of the state (and Obama) lifted from them.
After Romney had finished speaking, Thiel offered the prospective president some counsel: “I think the most pessimistic candidate is going to win, because if you are too optimistic it suggests that you are out of touch.” Romney ignored the advice.
“He assumed that the more optimistic candidate would always win,” wrote Packer. “He assumed that things were fundamentally working.”
It was not a mistake that Obama made – if 2008 was hopeful, the central message of the president’s re-election campaign was foreboding. There was no talk of change, just an incredibly successful portrayal of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat that eventually carried the Democrat over the line.
In the US in 2011, 80 per cent of people thought their children would be worse off than they were. The situation is not so different here: last month, 60 per cent of people polled in a YouGov/Sunday Times survey said they expected their children would have less than their parents. Five years into a global downturn, with the UK economy still bumping along the bottom, expectations of a bright future have rarely been lower in living memory.
This is the context within which next year’s referendum will take place. It is not hard to imagine Better Together burning out in a blaze of apocalyptic rhetoric between now and next September – especially if they keep going at their current pace – but Yes Scotland must be wary of offering a rose-tinted vision of “independent Scotland as Nordic nirvana” that stretches credibility to breaking point. As Barack Obama learned between 2008 and 2012, hope doesn’t always sell.
Polls suggest that at least a quarter of Scottish voters are unhappy with the status quo, but have yet to be sold on the value of full independence. Quite a few of these constitutional agnostics can be found on the cricket pitches of Scotland. “Project Fear” could send them into the arms of the Yes campaign, but Salmond & Co should be ready to meet them with optimism tempered by a little more cold-heartened realism. Voters, after all, are grown-ups. They can handle it.