Yes Scotland: Too many Chiefs?
I heard from a friend this weekend, who was bursting with enthusiasm and excitement. Said friend, like me, has been around the block with party politics and similarly, has spent the last few years sitting on the sidelines. Interested but somewhat disengaged.
That was before a local Yes meeting. Lots of people there. Lots of new people there. People from all parties and none. Scots, Danes and other nationalities too. Young and old, men and a pleasing number of women. Everyone keen as mustard. It was a joy.
This is what Yes Scotland was set up to do. To bring together disparate individuals and parties to coalesce around a common goal of campaigning for a yes vote in the independence referendum. With so many egos and potential players – and that’s just at local level – it was never going to be an easy task. But with the great staff and volunteer team in place at Yes Scotland HQ, such issues are clearly being anticipated, with thought going into how to design their input to build the capacity of nascent community campaigns and create harmony where there is huge potential for discord. Well done them, and clearly testament too, to Blair Jenkins’ powers and talents as a chief executive.
Already, the organisation established to achieve a yes vote is starting to deliver on its aims and intentions. There are campaign groups now in every local authority area in Scotland. There are training dates being set up and national days of action planned, with a real purpose. The messaging is simple and clear and easy to understand and put across. The materials are great.
Moreover, the movement’s approach is to engage people in a dialogue, to discuss with them their issues and concerns, to persuade them to think differently. It will be interesting to see if the Better Together campaign can match this grassroots activism: the SNP has, after all, proved itself masterful at such an approach in recent elections, and its activists are clearly being boosted by folk from the Greens, the left and even the Lib Dems (I kid you not). Best of all, there are people of no party persuasion who believe in Scotland’s right to self-determination who already are stepping up to the plate. I’m feeling guilty at my own lack of engagement and prompted to remedy it.
So again, plaudits where they are due. The Board at Yes Scotland and its staff team – all of them in post only a few months – have hit the ground running. And how. Blair Jenkins is clearly a great manager and leader. This kind of organisation and strategic approach, of finding the right people to deliver on that approach, of marshalling the resources, of allowing ideas to flourish but action to follow – these are exactly the things he was brought in to achieve, and achieving it he is. But was he employed to become the figure head of the Yes campaign? Does his remit extend to the politics of it all? Is it his job to influence the process? On this I am less certain.
It would be easier to say yes, if Jenkins was a natural showman with a deft touch for the politics. But he hasn’t. And every time he conducts an interview, there are gaffes. That’s what happens when you put a novice under a sharp and unrelenting political light. This is a bearpit and it requires politicians of the highest ability to spar and rebuff and get the message across. And even if it is in the plan to develop Jenkins as the frontman, there simply is not time, with less than two years to go, to perfect him in this role. Doing so is going to require all of Susan Stewart’s considerable and formidable powers as a doyenne of communications. And is that how and where her energy and resources should be spent?
Because the media will always ask awkward questions – that’s their job. We might not see it as their role to dig for dissent, but they clearly do. And every time Blair Jenkins gives the not-quite-right answer, or his personal opinion, if it differs from what the SNP has previously said, the headline will scream of a split.
He also risks upsetting the other partners in this venture if he gives an opinion, putatively that of Yes Scotland, which differs from their own parties’ beliefs. The Scottish Greens have already spat their dummy out of the pram: Patrick Harvie will have no hesitation in doing so again, if he thinks the vehicle to drive for a yes vote is moving far from its objectives and espousing political values he and his party do not and cannot share.
Thus, today, he muses in the Sunday Herald that the SNP should abide by the Electoral Commission’s opinion on the wording of the question and on the issue of campaign expenditure. The implication is that Yes Scotland will. What, even if the Electoral Commission advises that donations from outwith Scotland should be allowed? That would be directly opposite to what he and Yes Scotland has already said. Another problem which might need swept up in the weeks to come.
And if the Commission recommends a form of wording clearly unfavourable to the yes campaign, that will be okay? Trying to come across as warm, fuzzy and convivial is all very well but not if it leaves your own side at a disadvantage. These are exactly the kind of consequences politicians think through – most of the time – before they conduct an interview or give a statement.
I’m sure that Blair Jenkins’ touring the studios and press is part of the grand plan. I’m sure that it has all been agreed with the board and that the roles for each of the main front players – individuals and organisations – in the campaign have been discussed and delineated.
But I’m struggling at the moment to see what is being gained by having quite so many different voices to the fore. Except to feed copy to a gluttonous media, desperate to portray the yes camp at odds with itself. And the more voices we have, the greater the chance of that happening. Having too many chiefs will confuse the public and even the injuns, particularly if the chiefs are all saying very different things all at the same time.
We already have plenty folk on the yes side who can put a message across; there are far fewer who can deliver organisationally and logistically. Far better then, for Blair Jenkins to leave the politicking and communicating to those who can and get on with the job he was brought in to do. His talents, skills and experience are undoubted but the task is huge. And if he wants to be afforded his place in Scottish political history, he needs to keep his focus and his eyes on the prize.