Sir Harry Burns is not your atypical Chief Medical Officer. He’s on a mission, convinced that evidence of our continuing health inequalities shows that the tried and tested methods of service design and delivery need to change. If you’ve never heard him speak, I would heartily recommend you do. There are worse ways to while away an hour, and I guarantee you’ll come away thinking, if not necessarily agreeing.
Indeed, I’d commend Sir Harry’s philosophy to those in charge of the Yes Scotland campaign.
Yes Scotland is aiming to be “the biggest community-based campaign in Scotland’s history, designed to build a groundswell of support...”. The Sunday Herald takes a closer look and suggests that the campaign is borrowing heavily from the approach used by Obama to deliver success. At its heart is the intention to build relationships – through local and national ambassadors, groups, streetwork, local communities and communities of interest and “neighbourhood by neighbourhood and community by community“.
I make no apology for repetition of the word “community”: it trips off the tongue of those leading the Yes Scotland campaign and is at the heart of what Sir Harry Burns proposes.
His view is that if we are to successfully address Scotland’s health inequalities, we need to focus on “behaviours and influences and also the social factors which impact people’s health and wellbeing, especially in their early lives”. By empowering individuals and communities to take control of their futures (and by definition, the centre and the state taking a more hands off role), sustainable local solutions to local problems can be found. In arriving at this proposition, Sir Harry is fond of citing Aaron Aronovsky’s theory of social coherence.
This sense of coherence has three components:
Comprehensibility – a belief that things happen in an orderly and predictable fashion and a sense that you can understand events in your life and reasonably predict what will happen in the future.
Manageability – a belief that you have the skills or ability, the support, the help, or the resources necessary to take care of things, and that things are manageable and within your control.
Meaningfulness – a belief that things in life are interesting and a source of satisfaction, that things are really worth it and that there is good reason or purpose to care about what happens.
You can see instantly echoes of this in what the Yes, Scotland campaign is setting out to do – and indeed, in the SNP’s messaging over the years – but you can also see its flaws and weaknesses.
If people who are less opposed to the idea of independence and more amenable to being persuaded are to be convinced to vote yes, they have to be supported to arrive at this destination by their own accord. They have to understand what independence means – not hard and fast policies, but the idea of possibility, as gloriously explained by Ian Bell and David Greig this week. They also have to believe that independence – and independence as a successful social and political construct for them and their families – is feasible. And they have to believe that engaging in the debate and ultimately voting yes is in their interests and that they should care about the outcome of the referendum.
By asking people to sign a declaration at this stage, Yes Scotland is still talking to its own community. The response has been astonishing but the declarers are largely confirmed yes voters, nosy journalists and avowed Unionists who think the best way to keep tabs on what the campaign is up to is to sign up. It might be a necessary first step but there is a risk that many undecideds already feel excluded from the process.
As the launch bore out, the Yes Scotland’s community of interest is pitifully thin at present, comprising largely white men of a certain age. Everyone, everywhere has commented on the lack of women involved in the launch event on Friday; thankfully, there are more in the excellent Yes vide0, but to launch a community-based campaign, by marginalising the voices of women, as well as people from ethnic minority backgrounds, New Scots, disabled people and even, young people, highlights the campaign’s flaws in all their monochrome glory. And these issues are more than presentational: the latest YouGov poll suggests that only a quarter of women intend to vote yes in the referendum.
The campaign’s aim of taking the debate to communities and individuals through ambassadors is on the right track, but when a sizeable number of those supposed ambassadors think the way to persuade people to vote yes is by talking to them in pejorative language and beating them into submission through the strength of their convictions, the campaign has a problem. These virulent yes-supporters need to be sidelined – and their ringleaders in the SNP, in particular, silenced – otherwise the persuadables will become utterly disengaged and opt ultimately to stay at home.
By starting the campaign by pitching to Labour voters is essentially to treat the campaign just like an election one. Yes, it helps those in the persuadable column who normally vote Labour and identify with the labour movement, to see that others of their ilk are supportive of independence but this tactic is one for further down the timeline. What needs to happen now is a process of empowerment, so that these voters come to see independence as achievable, manageable, tangible, meaningful and crucially, something in which they have a stake.
To do this requires more than marketing techniques and powerful online tools: it requires real community engagement. The campaign team needs to involve people – like Sir Harry Burns – who know and understand what it involves and how to do it effectively.
However, the biggest weakness to be overcome is one of control. To succeed, Yes Scotland has to cede control to the people it is trying to persuade to vote yes, yet, the SNP has achieved its greatest successes in recent years by being absolutely in control of the strategy, the tactics, the message, the activity, the pace and the tone. Such discipline has been necessary, because of the array of opposition all around it. While that opposition hasn’t even begun to warm up yet, those in charge of Yes, Scotland are alert to what is heading their way. Their instinct will be to apply greater control to the campaign as we get closer to 2014, when that is exactly the time for it to trust that its engagement activity has done its job and let go. It is a dichotomy that the movement and campaign must resolve.
But, as Yes Scotland’s organisers know, this is not just another election campaign. To persuade a majority of Scottish people to vote yes will require enabling them to develop a real sense of coherence about independence. In particular, it will require real engagement with communities – geographically and socially – who currently feel excluded from the debate and have a very deficit-based approach to the idea of independence.
To win, will involve empowering these individuals and communities to believe in the possibilities independence offers; that they – and not politicians or the establishment – will lead where Scotland goes after a yes vote; that this process is about them and focusing on what they can achieve; that they – we – have the skills and resources to make independence a success; that when they look at the horizon beyond independence, they can see land and not just an indistinct mass shrouded in mist.