The difference between the two campaigns has been striking – ‘Yes’ has been positive, cautious, presenting a slowly building case, never triumphalist, but always leaving it as realistically possible to both win or lose – probably unintentionally, they have left themselves flexibility for both during and after the campaign. In contrast, the ‘No’ campaign strategy has always attempted to be a confident one – always tell the world that they are way in the lead, hold firm by scaring the supporters that you already have so that they won’t even countenance deserting you, and they will get across the line. But this is also an extremely high risk strategy for them. The narrative that they present is fairly inflexible. Although the process of asserting that they are inevitably going to win builds a solid idea of ‘normalisation’ (see earlier blogs) of that as the single expected result, it then makes it difficult to respond to changes – for example, if the polls start to go against your narrative (although some polling companies can of course sample more favourably to your objective than to your opponent’s – for example, basing their population cross-section on Westminster rather than Holyrood voting intentions). Or – most critically as the grand day approaches – your voter base takes from your strategy of normalisation that a No vote is almost guaranteed, and your continued assertions to this effect become a strong permissive signal for them to become complacent: if you have told people that they are the silent majority, that there is no chance of losing (partly because the aspiration of your opponent is ‘obviously’ a stupid notion and not credible with your fellow citizens), then how do you suddenly tell them that if they don’t come out, then they will lose?
I’m not ignoring some of the benefits that ‘No’ derive in the immediate wake of a result – if it’s a ‘Yes’, then after all the widely-touted polls, their oft-repeated claims of so many contacts with undecideds, and in spite of any Edinburgh Agreement to respect the result, ‘No’ can loudly protest electoral malpractice, and put pressure on for there to be a rejection of the result (especially if it is a narrow one). Conversely, if ‘No’ swing the result marginally using (oh, let’s say) postal ballot fraud (and some postal ballots appear to have gone up on eBay this week), then it doesn’t look – immediately – suspicious. In short, the story that they have repeatedly successfully handed to the media to broadcast is one of ‘we will win – so if we do not, view it with great suspicion’. But in order for ‘No’ to have the best chance of ‘actually’ winning it, they need to be sure that they can get their vote out. So how do they square that particular circle, when their overall narrative encourages complacency in their supporters?
Well, one strategy that could be used (as we have seen) is that you can attempt to demonise the opposition supporters, make them into something sub-human, a Fifth Column within Scotland, a threat to be countered boldly and patriotically…which is hard to do if those same ‘Yes’ supporters are busy being Pippi Longstocking, turning up at your door with a big friendly smile, canvassing grid and a voter registration form. How do ‘No’ avoid being perceived as the ‘bullyboys’ of the debate? Simple – publicise and inflate insubstantial (if not fictional) incidents through a compliant media, to run down actual counter-incidents of assaults on Yes supporters. Never mind the counter-incidents of ‘actual’ violence (as opposed to an egg being thrown by an unidentified individual who, on video, appeared very similar to a regular part of Murphy’s touring entourage): those incidents are unlikely to be reported by that same media anyway. For example, you probably haven’t heard of the first victim of actual violence in the Referendum campaign – James McMillan, the 80 year old Yes campaigner who sustained a broken wrist in Edinburgh last September, from a woman incensed by his ‘Yes’ placard. Then there are other incidents – the pregnant Yes supporter kicked to the ground by the Britannica member in Glasgow’s Argyle Street, and the three members of Hearts Supporters for Independence attacked in an (apparently) orchestrated way in Gorgie on Saturday.
So it becomes essential to report acts that discredit your opposition – regardless of how fictional they may actually be: for example, the surprisingly invisible tweets of abuse against Susan Calman that could be found by noone – or those ‘almost daily’ instances of graffiti against the ‘No’ campaign headquarters, again remarkably unphotographed and not reported to the police. (It is worthwhile noting, as a small sidebar to this context, that there is no issue of a relative lack of police officers being unable to cope with such complaints: Allan Burnett, a former director of intelligence at Strathclyde Police noted that police officer numbers have been “slashed” in England and Wales and “have fallen more rapidly than anywhere else in Europe”, but have been maintained in Scotland.) And more than just reporting acts like that, you have to really ramp up the fear by stunt posturing. Thus when Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy made much noise about going to the police about their ‘concerns about violence’ and ‘absolute carnage’ around the polling stations on the 18th, the Scottish Police Federation’s response was swift – drawing a clear connection between those making those arguments, and a possible self-fulfilling prophecy.
Veracity is not really the point, in the ‘No’ campaign – winning is their only objective. And yes, I do draw a big distinction between them and ‘Yes’ in that aspect: it matters to ‘Yes’ that they win the peace after the vote, whichever way the vote goes; the people who fund ‘No’ mostly do not live in Scotland, so care little about winning that peace.
“The independence debate has been robust but overwhelmingly good natured and it would prove a disservice to those who have participated in it thus far to suggest that with 17 days to go, Scotland is about to disintegrate into absolute carnage on the back of making the most important decision in the country’s history. Politicians and supporters of whichever point of view need to be mindful of the potential impact of intemperate, inflammatory and exaggerated language, lest they be seen to seek to create a self fulfilling prophecy.” (Brian Docherty, Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, 1st September 2014)