The Fake Plastic ‘Grass Roots’, and who is trying to buy a ‘No’ vote in Scotland – or ‘Don’t you just get a feeling sometimes when something is wrong?’

The other day we had to cancel our regular daily ‘Yes’ stall at The Meadows. There was an Orange Order march scheduled, and we had been ‘advised’ not to go to our regular site, in case of any ‘tension’. Unfortunate though this may be, this does raise the issue of the backing for the ‘No’ campaign, in terms of organizations that are supporting a ‘No’ vote. I’m reminded of the 1980s’ ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign (later updated to the imaginative ‘Ulster Still Says No’) – a flat, uncompromising denial, rejection, no negotiation and certainly a complete absence of understanding…perhaps things have not changed so much. Despite ‘No’ distancing themselves, the fact that other organizations such as UKIP, BNP, and the anti-Islamic English Defence League (of which the Scottish Defence League is a sub-group) see it as in their interests to support that result, does surely set some alarm bells going as to what kind of future a ‘No’ vote will deliver for Scotland, if they believe that they will be a thriving part of it. Are they George Robertson and Tony Abbott’s ‘friends of freedom and justice’? It is a coalition of the angry, the sectarian and the xenophobic, led by the Labour Party with its recently-discovered ‘problem with Foreigners’. I think this is why individuals such as Lauren Reid (who I have spoken in praise of elsewhere) in the Orange Order are making a stand for a positive future for their families, by going against the organisation’s line, and coming out for ‘Yes’. In my view, they cannot be respected too highly for doing this.

The somewhat unsettling idea of ‘who is trying to secure a No vote’ does become a little more disturbing the more one digs down into financial support – ‘follow the money’, as the saying goes. Firstly, the April 2013 accounts that compare donations to the Yes and No campaigns are interesting, with 93% of Yes donations (£1,625,797 of £1,737,797) coming from within Scotland, and less than 40% of the No campaign’s donations (£457,451 of £1,118,451) coming from within Scotland. The bulk of the No funders don’t live here, so their vested interests in the result are not those of being Fellow Citizens of Scotland: clearly, there are groups or individuals that do not live in Scotland that are putting a lot of money into trying to buy a ‘No’ vote for reasons that have very little to do with sharing the challenges and ambitions of the people that do. Most people will have been aware of Ian Taylor and the furore that was raised over his half million donation of supposed ‘dirty money’ to the No campaign, given his role as CEO in Vitol, an Iranian oil sanction-breaking, genocidist (Arkan)-hiring, tax avoiding global oil company. This follows a pattern of corporate business abroad, who regularly make large donations to the Conservative Party (and appear to be more admirers of tax avoidance than democracy), donating to a referendum that they don’t have a vote in.

Secondly, the appearance of ‘astroturf’ campaign groups in this Referendum has seen another traditional aspect of US politics come to the fore. These are groups that posture as ‘grassroots’ to give the illusion of popular support, but are funded by vested interest corporate groups and whose activities are carried out by hired employees (e.g. the US’s National Smokers Alliance, created by a public relations firm and funded by tobacco companies, with the objective of creating the illusion of popular resistance to anti-tobacco regulation), because there simply is not the popular support for them (in a similar way to the donations levels noted above) that creates armies of genuine volunteers. Hence there are no public Better Together rallies, meetings are closed, debates are almost entirely shunned. In this context, both the ‘Vote No Borders’ hoax grass roots campaign, and the ‘Scottish Research Society’ are good examples, both being registered with the Electoral Commission as pro-Union campaign groups and appearing in May of this year. ‘Vote No Borders’ was originated by Malcolm Offord, millionaire investor, fund manager, and prolific donor to the Conservative Party – he was also the author of a 2009 paper ‘Bankrupt Britain’ that argued for a third of all welfare funding to be cut. The directors of ‘Vote No Borders’ are Offord and Fiona Gilmore – who both run a London public relations company (Acanchi), and although they only launched the pretend grass roots group a few months ago, they have been planning the strategies for it for two years. Similarly, the ‘Scottish Research Society’ is run by marketing directors Hamish Cameron and Elaine Mackenzie Grossart (partners in the business/events promotion company Namaste Partnership Ltd), and at the time of its launch had received its major donation from Mark Bamford, the tycoon of JCB diggers that has donated over £2 million to the Conservative Party (and is a board member of the Conservative Foundation, established to secure funding for the party’s future). It is hard not to observe that major London-based Conservative Party donors are also hugely significant donors to the ‘No’ campaign. Given their pedigree, it seems fairly safe to say that these people are not backing the continuation of the Union to support you, they’re backing it to avoid banking regulation, land reform, higher taxes for the top earners, climate change targets, redistribution of wealth and any agenda that involves such a quaint idea as ‘social justice’.

There are other vested interests which are more naked – and strangely refreshing in comparison. When asked why they are running the respective campaigns, although those in ‘Yes’ will speak of their vision for the future and positive social change in a new Scotland, the ‘No’ campaign’s Head of Communications was quite open: “The independence campaign pays my mortgage”. (One gets the feeling that if he had been an offered a salary of another £1,000 a year, he could just as easily have been working for ‘Yes’.) Similarly, there is the Ermine Express – a generation of career Labour politicians, who I first encountered in the Labour Clubs of universities. Indeed, it was their astonishing disinterest in enacting any of the promises that they had made to their student electorate on the way to being elected (and which I, for my sins, actively campaigned twice for them to win), that first pushed me into politics, as a reactionary to that kind of naked contempt for the democratic process, even in the toytown that is student politics. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised at the subsequent philosophical change in the Labour Party over the last 20 years – the move from ‘get power, in order to change things’ to just ‘get power’. The signs were there for so many of them in their Labour Club beginnings. They have been aiming at the House of Lords as their intended career apex, and quite understandably don’t want to see that taken away from them at this stage, never mind perhaps losing a cushy constituency in the poorer areas of Glasgow, where one does not need to do terribly much for the area, in order to get reelected every time.

But my major regrets lie for those who do have a vested interest in the result – perhaps many of them voters in those same solid Labour-supporting constituencies that have been slipping further into poverty through the decades. They might yet blindly vote against the possibility of positive change, having been subjected to decades of the ‘subsidy junkie’ myth. This reminds me of a meeting of the Edinburgh Students Against Racism which Muriel Gray – then University Rector – attended. At one point, she spoke of her frustration of watching black people on the London Underground reading tabloids such as the Daily Mail, and wanting to tap them on the shoulder and say ‘don’t you realize that paper hates you?’ (see for an example) Embracing that aspect of the press, or a given political party, without any critical assessment, but simply because socially it is what is expected of you, and not realizing that it is very far from being your ‘Friend’.

Yet maybe there are some positive signs that this situation might not be completely intractable, and that perhaps that situation can change. The lack of core support for a ‘No’ vote from Labour in Scotland is reflected not just in polls (37% of Labour voters and 30% of Labour Party members apparently intending to vote ‘Yes’ – and that figure has been rising), but also in their inability to raise enough activists to do streetwork for a ‘No’ vote. There are examples of activists having to be shipped in, being brought up from Durham, Manchester and Newcastle, and on at least some occasions have been paid to be canvassers on the ‘No’ side. If this is a metric of the ‘grass roots support’ for ‘No’ in Labour, then it surely speaks loudly: it seems that – even if they intend to vote ‘No’ themselves – many members of the Labour Party in Scotland don’t exactly have the heart to campaign for it. This is in stark contrast to ‘Yes’– all the streetworkers are volunteers to do canvassing and leafletting – we don’t get any payment. (Well, unless you count ‘Yes cakes’ baked by other volunteers, which you can eat afterwards – whoa, I can feel another Eliot Bulmer ‘writer paid to write shock’ scandal coming on…)

So – to summarise: the ‘No’ campaign needs outside financial support from non-voters, outside campaigning support from non-voters, relies on fake external companies pretending to be a manifestation of ‘grass roots’ support, and even pays for its ‘volunteers’.

Oh, BTW – after the Saturday absence, our stall with its genteel Newington ladies returned on the Sunday (No surrender and all that, you know? 🙂 ). But it does make me think that the Orange Order march planned through Edinburgh the week before the Referendum will probably push more undecideds to Yes than No – it represents the outmodedness of the British Empire, with sectarianism, a slavish devotion to the monarch and racism, all rolled into one hard-to-digest anachronistic package, and usefully reflects the Referendum choice, in terms of the past traditions that are sustained with a No vote, and the alternative of a Yes future without that nonsense.

The only problem is, we are not exactly likely to get the media coverage of such negative support for ‘No’ via the BBC, as they know it does the cause of a ‘No’ vote no good at all to publicise it.


What does independence mean for you? “The independence campaign pays my mortgage. That’s all I want to say.” (Rob Shorthouse, Head of Communications, Better Together, March 2014)

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