To succeed, Yes Scotland needs social coherence

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:

Comprehensibilitya 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.



13 thoughts on “To succeed, Yes Scotland needs social coherence

  1. Pingback: Scottish, British, European | Edinburgh Eye

  2. Actually Kate, I think you might be wrong on where the campaign is headed.

    For the SNP has clearly recognised that it was not the SNP who was repsonsible for last year’s monumental triumph. It knows it was the power of a groundswell that took it through the ceiling.

    The point of the Declaration is precisely to broaden the campaign. You would have to be an absolutely entrenched Unionist to disagree with it. For the vast majority of people in Scotland, maybe as much as 75 – 80%, it would be broadly acceptable.

    As with 2011, the genesis will be SNP activists knocking doors but this time asking people to sign up rather than verbally pledge a vote. It might be a higher engagement threshhold but with more potential targets AND that higher threshhold also means that those who do sign have invested much more and will be far more likely to act on their investment.

    I forsee the national/media campaign relentlessly pressing the concept of self-determination and the economic case for Independence while the many groups associated with the campaign paint their vision of Independence to their preferred audience under the media radar.

    It suits the Yes team fine for our opponents to train their guns on Salmond. He will be able to engage the No campaign in a futile media war while the real campaign is won through peers and neighbours persuading each other on the ground.

  3. Judy,very sad to see that you have blocked those on twitter that dared to complain to you re- being called trolls after your disastrous appearance on the bbc

    • Funnily enough, it’s a free world and i can choose whom I wish to engage with on twitter and elsewhere. And you were blocked for insulting me personally not for objecting. I did not specify whom I thought was trolling – interesting that you felt it applied to you.

      Also, not everyone agrees with you re my performance nor saw it as disastrous, including many in the SNP. Listening rather than shouting at folk is the essence of this blogpiece – I’d read it carefully and see if you can learn something.

      By the way, my name’s not Judy.

  4. In fact there are lots of Public Health people across the UK (and the World) who are becoming very interested in applying social movement theory to health inequalities. Public Health is rapidly becoming the political wing of health care and it will be interesting to see if becoming part of local government in England enabled Public Health Directors to speak out even more. There is an interesting (and short) book called ‘Market Rebels’ by Hayagreeva Rao which looks at how new ideas do or do not gain traction.

    • Brilliant! Thanks, will look out for it. It will require a big shift in Scottish thinking and approach to health and other social policy, in that it requires the state to step back and not know best. I’ve been in audiences where Harry Burns has posited this without concluding it and seen an awful lot of nervous shifting in seats, as well as some real heated questioning afterwards.

      I think he#s right – what he says makes sense to me.

  5. Excellent argument. As to the needs for ‘the organisers of yes scotland ceding control” I wholly agree, It is just not at all clear to me who these organisers are. What is yes scotland in terms of an organisation?. A website you can submit contact details to to ans then sit around waiting to be contacted by appears to be the answer at the moment. Needs to change pronto – like tomorrow.

  6. Going to the debate at the BBC tonight at 5pm.Just thought I’d put that in.We must persuade others of the possibilities of independence and that in this union all we are doing is stagnating, being independent would allow you to set your ideas free to-day not in ten years time.We all will have a new idea of how we can use this new/old country,like lets go bankrupt and emerge as a NEWCO!with all the advantages of having everything in place and all the fresh ideas of new management.(Doesn’t look as good written as it did in my head)

    • No it comes across fine Charles and agree with you. Though think we need to dig a bit deeper than management, tho get what you are saying. Enjoy the debate!

  7. My feeling is that success in this regard would require conversation not just about independence, but about what happens afterwards. Thus far it has been useful to treat independence as the end point, a goal in itself (which it is rom the SNP’s point of view), but as we get closer to the referendum people are going to be increasingly concerned about the invisible nature of the future. Two things need to be done there. The first is to talk about the kind of Scotland we want to achieve. Some effort has already been made at inclusivity – LGBT people were prominent at the launch and the First Minister has several times referenced the outlook for disabled people – but there needs to be much more of this to broaden perspectives until everyone can see something they identify with. The second thing is that people’s smaller stories need to be woven into the grand narrative. This is the real key, I think. The independence movement needs to look at individual lives in a way that helps voters think about their lives, and it needs to do it in a very down to earth way. People need to be able to relate independence to the day to day.

  8. Pingback: To succeed, Yes Scotland needs social coherence | Scottish Independence Referendum |

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