Badges of Change?: Rules of Engagement & Normalisation

Seen any members of the public wearing referendum badges recently? Last week I read a hilariously sarcastic letter in the Metro, where the individual concerned had said that they had been thinking about voting ‘No’, but were seriously thinking otherwise now that they had seen all the little stickers on bus shelters and a poster in their neighbour’s window. Of course, the writer (perhaps quite deliberately) is missing the point – spectacularly. The badges have nothing whatsoever to do with getting an argument about independence across. In a way, they serve a far more basic, fundamental campaign purpose.

For most of the last 50 years, since the first SNP election victory, independence has generally been regarded as a joke, and a preposterous idea. The discovery of North Sea oil threatened to change that, as argued by the 1974 report by Gavin McCrone, so the true scale of the discovery, and its potential implications for an independent Scotland, were deliberately kept quiet, as noted by Denis Healey in Holyrood magazine recently. This meant that it was easy to trivialise and dismiss any idea that a referendum would be held, never mind that we would be as close numerically as we appear to be, within touching distance of winning the vote on that question. This has meant that the idea has been continually regarded as marginal in press and on broadcasting outlets, something never dealt with as a realistic proposition.

Technically, this all changed with the 2011 Holyrood election and the unexpected landslide victory, which delivered the power to hold a referendum (with or without Westminster’s approval) into the SNP’s suddenly capacious collective lap. At this point, one might have expected the media to start dealing with the independence option differently – and some commentators noteably did so, although the failure of the BBC to move with the times has been incisively dissected by Derek Bateman. The response letter to Professor John Robertson (in light of his findings of bias in referendum coverage by both BBC and STV) from the BBC queried his description of independence as a ‘normal’ option, in the context of the Union having been in place for over 300 years – so it seems like a considerable period of time might have to pass before the BBC in Scotland considers that it is incumbent on them to play ‘catch-up’ with the zeitgeist.

So, if the bulk of the media are not going to deal with independence as suddenly a viable option, then two things are going to happen. One is, that alternative media will be created to fill the vacuum where those outlets should naturally exist – hence the emergence of the huge social media and online presence of the pro-independence movement. And it is significant that this is not just simple websites and blogs amidst FaceBook pages and Twitter feeds, but also online radio broadcasts from Derek Bateman (Bateman Broadcasting), and online TV broadcasts from Lesley Riddoch (Referendum Live TV) – both seasoned BBC broadcasters – indicating the sense that this subject matter is not being broadcast, and more to the point cannot currently find an outlet in the mainstream’s output, despite broadcaster responsibilities (however you wish to define them, as commercial or charter-driven) to cover it extensively during this critical year.
But I digress (television coverage is a topic for another time). The ‘alternative’ presence means that the issue of independence and everything that surrounds it, is encountered, discussed and considered in a way as never before. And all those tiny little stickers and badges are part of that – telling people that first of all, if they are considering ‘Yes’, then they are not alone, and secondly that it is (if the numbers on the streets are anything to go by) a far from unpopular choice. This is the beginnings of engaging with the voters for a possible ‘Yes’ vote.

On this issue, I have to say that the absence of ‘No’ badges, stickers and posters has been striking. I only really noticed this two weeks ago, when I saw my first ever ‘No’ badge wearer. I was not aware of the badge initially, only that someone was staring intently – almost like they were coiled, and preparing to strike – at me from the seat opposite. As my eyes drifted slowly upwards, I saw the red badge and thought (instinctively? naively?) that it was like the red badge that I wore…until I realized, with something of a shock, that his was a ‘No Thanks’ badge. He was a retired gentleman, well-dressed on a Lothian bus (it was only later that I thought about the irony of someone in that position, given that I would bet that he had not elected to pay for his fare, so was buying into some of those radical SNP Holyrood policies very happily indeed) – and I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to avoid any stereotyping of what his wider politics might be on the basis of those few observations. He appeared to be waiting for some kind of a fight, but frankly I was on my way home from work, and given he was unusual enough to publicly advertise that he was voting ‘No’, I thought it was fairly unlikely that a short bus journey was going to be enough time for me to give him any food for serious thought.

Furthermore, as part of my growing incipient activism, I have recently started helping out on a ‘Yes’ stall on the Meadows, where the encounters with ‘No’ voters have been extremely rare (perhaps one a day – usually ‘regulars’), but almost universally aggressive when they do happen. They have not wanted discussion, or debate, when they approach the stall, and solely seem to want rather physical confrontations. Ok, those words of the Somerset philosopher come back: ‘if you are going to stick your bum out the window, people are going to throw things at it’ – but given the majority of the time it is retired elderly ladies staffing the stall, such an approach seems a tad questionable, if not inappropriate. And indeed it seems to speak more to the idea that the emotive (and less rational) response to this question is coming far more from the ‘No’ side than the ‘Yes’ side. But it does make one a little reluctant to engage with ‘No’ voters, when one is conditioned to expect that response. (By this stage, it is really all about the undecideds, anyway.) This is perhaps also supported by the only other piece of No advertising by the ‘public’ that I had seen prior to that – a large piece of graffiti around the advertising hoarding area partway down from Leith Walk from Elm Row, which loudly proclaimed ‘Holyrood Traitors’ signed by ‘No-stradamus’ (you see what they did there?) in spray-painted letters that were crying out for a misspelling to be present. There is something intrinsically quite violent about that sort of vandalistic manifestation, with letters running around 30 feet down a hoarding and nearby wall. (When I went past on Saturday, the black paint below the hoarding had been renewed, and the stonework cleaned, so sadly I cannot show you an image of it – although the Scotsman carried coverage of a similar piece by ‘Nostardamus’ as ‘Salmond the Traitor’ on the walls of Holyrood Palace – so I’m glad to see that the anticipated spelling error did turn up.)

Anyway, once that first (and so far only) ‘No Thanks’ badge was encountered, I did start looking more actively, and consequently found myself reflecting on the remarkable scarcity of ‘No’ badges, stickers and posters. Why would this be, given the polls that we have been seeing? Should there not be at least as many in evidence as for ‘Yes’? Well, one can understand that ‘No’s (who may somewhat mistakenly think they are voting for a status quo) would be less likely to display their viewpoint – it is not an advocacy for change, therefore is a far more passive (bearing in mind the preceding paragraph) position. In contrast, ‘Yes’ represents a far more evident political change, involving signing up intellectually to a change rather than passive acceptance, and perhaps are therefore more likely to advertise that position. But, going deeper than that, is this contrast in willingness to display also something that correlates with a reflection of a willingness to turn out and actually vote? It may be, certainly people have discussed the fact that ‘yes’ is likely to turn out regardless of storm, Arthur’s Seat suddenly returning to active status or tsunami on the day. Less theoretically/anecdotally, a TNS poll in February 2014 showed an 11% greater likelihood to turn out and vote for Yes as opposed to No voters. But ‘No’ – especially with the message that they have so constantly put out about how far ahead their lead is – might be deterred by a smir of rain. Perhaps that is why so many postal votes have been opted for, supposedly 25%? (Google ‘Glenrothes electoral fraud postal votes’ for some other perspectives on this…)

Having considered ‘No’ voters’ likelihood to declare themselves before the Referendum, and the chances of them voting during the Referendum, I suppose it is also worthwhile considering the aftermath. In this regard, I am reminded of studies that dealt with John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s election, and the fact that the numbers of people after JFK’s election who said that they had voted for him instead of Goldwater, were far greater than the actual numbers of votes cast for Kennedy. People want to be part of a positive legacy, and are reluctant to retrospectively admit that they did otherwise. Regardless of the result on the 18th September, I suspect that it will still be hard to find people who claim to have voted ‘No’ – a vote against hope, against a future, against belief in the people of Scotland to run their own affairs (making them unique in the world in this regard). Whether you believe in it or not, it is more difficult to be proud of having made such a vote, against change, and boast about it afterwards (IMHO). To be fair, we have seen this concept of ‘Invisible Retrospective Voters’ before in Scotland – see Elaine C. Smith’s sketch on ‘Naked Video’ where a group chase down an individual and she points an accusing finger at the cornered man, declaring “There he is! The SCOT that voted Tory!!!”

A last point worth noting is that last week I also noticed the only ‘No’ car sticker that I have seen thus far. It was in the rear window of a C1 Citroen, next to a ‘Scotland for Marriage’ car sticker. I smiled when I saw it, and tried – again, probably unsuccessfully – to avoid making a stereotypical connection between those two fairly non-progressive viewpoints…

Oh, and, just to be clear? I have nothing against Citroen C1s.

 

“I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5 per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had from that.” (Denis Healey, former Chancellor, May 2013)

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