Pincer movement

It’s only the first week of the new year and already there’s good news for the yes campaign.

Another “senior Labour figure” has come out. No matter how hard they try to keep them under lock and key and far from the public gaze, they are managing to find a way out. And it takes balls to do it, to look the movement they’ve belonged to all their days in the eye and decide to break cover. To declare that they will be voting in September for Scotland to become independent.

Officially, Labour will shrug its shoulders and suggest that these are yesterday’s men and their views matter not a jot. But they do matter. To date, we’ve had a former Lord Provost of Glasgow, Alex Mosson, a former leader of Strathclyde Regional council and President of COSLA, Sir Charles Gray, and now. a former Leader of Lothian Regional Council, John Mulvey, all declare that they will be voting yes. These are big beasts in old Labour circles. Their willingness to make such public declarations of support for independence matters too. For they signal a shift in the air and in the ranks.

The yes campaign needs to chip away at the bedrock of Labour support, to persuade more of them to follow its lead and not Better Together’s, if it is to have a hope of turning around the polls and closing the gap in voting intentions. It matters too that it is members of the old Labour guard who are coming out. The staunchest section of the population stubbornly clinging to the old ties that bind are those aged over 55. They need role models, politicians they’ve known all their voting lives and whose views they respect, to persuade them otherwise.

It’s fair to say that Yes has the far left and the new left pretty sewn up. But their votes are not enough, nor are they particularly representative of the population at large. They also need the old left to come on board; for more of the votes that Labour used to weigh in certain parts of the country to journey from no to undecided to persuadable to yes.

But the campaign also needs the right-of-centre, or centre-right, sections of the electorate to vote yes. For Conservatives and conservatives to drop the unionist part of their beliefs and choose independence too. The launch of Wealthy Nation at the end of the auld year was just as important at this latest Labour declaration. It might make for uncomfortable bedfellows for some on the yes side but folk need to get – as the SNP always has done – that this is about more than them, that all votes count and more are needed.

The crucial coalition is around voting for independence; how we all envision what an independent Scotland might look like and achieve comes second. Once we’ve arrived, we can de-couple and form new alignments shaped around our quite different visions and views of what we want our country to be. The key, at this stage, is for us all simply to agree that independence offers the best hope of better and different.

And if we have to hold our noses in order to rub along in our movement, so be it. Working together in pursuit of a common goal doesn’t mean we have to put each other on the Christmas card list. This is something which Better Together appears to have grasped more readily than those on the yes side, though whether the public front translates into a workable and working movement on the ground is less convincing.

This is what Yes Scotland needs to focus on, gathering all these disparate groupings, sectors and individuals into a cohesive, campaigning whole. It can be done and if we are to succeed on 18 September, it must be done. The signs of a pincer movement on both the left and right of Scottish politics are promising.

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Blair v Blair – a postmortem

I had the pleasure of attending the latest in Dundee University’s Five Million Questions debate series on the referendum on Thursday. This initiative has convened a range of panels over the last few months to chew over the meat and bones relating to the independence question before a very live audience. I was privileged to take part in one on the role of the media – I was the token female, natch – but it was nonetheless an enjoyable experience.  And I always like things that make me think hard.  So thanks are due to the university and 5 Million Questions organisers for inviting me to take part and also to come along and listen on Thursday.

And it’s not over yet – the two “In conversations with” Douglas Alexander MP and Nicola Sturgeon MSP in December look fascinating and the team involved is currently exploring what it can do next year with the programme.  Taking 5 Million Questions out into the community in Dundee might well feature and that too, would be a very good thing.  Reaching the parts the referendum is currently passing by is not just desirable, it’s necessary if we are to claim that this has been a national debate with everyone participating.

This was one of the flaws of Thursday night’s debate.  It was packed with largely made-minds-up, and there appeared to be more from the Yes side in the audience. That influenced the mood and the tone and content of the questioning – myself included. With each side cheering their protagonists on, it’s difficult to get a sense of who won, or at least whose points were hitting home.  Partisanship is great and helped create a dynamic atmosphere for the debate but if everyone involved in this thing spends all their time talking to each other then we are doing a dis-service to the undecideds of Scotland.

I’m much more interested in hearing what they are thinking and have to say than hearing the same old, same old. There was an element of that evident in how both the Blairs approached the debate.  If I had been inclined to play referendum buzzword bingo, I would have had a full house in the first quarter of an hour.

Yet, there were meaty issues batted back and forth  – Europe, currency, economic matters, higher education, prosperity, oil, fairness, solidarity, democracy, even fishing all featured. And if you were an undecided, then I’m pretty sure you could have left the lecture theatre agreeing with what both men had to say, such was the forcefulness and indeed, thoughtfulness with which they put forward their cases.

Maybe I’m too close to it but it seemed all a bit sterile. Talking of stuff, rather than people and what all this means for their lives. Or maybe that’s just how I like to hear arguments framed.  Certainly, a newbie journalist, for whom this was their first venture into referendum territory, thought it exciting and really enjoyed it.  And seeing things like this through other people’s eyes is instructive.

So what of the Blairs – Yes-Blair and No-Blair as Gail Lythgoe deftly tagged them on twitter.  (All we need is a Mebbe-Bear and a Goldilocks and National Collective would have a set of characters with which to have a lot of fun).

This is only the third time I’ve encountered No-Blair, better known as Blair McDougall, the heid honcho of Better Together. There is no doubt he is a confident operator, with some smooth soundbites (Rob Shorthouse doing his job admirably) who is relaxed both before live audiences and on TV.  He has a remarkable command of facts to drop into his arguments, based – as he never tires of telling us all – on his extensive experience of working in various roles in the EU, at Downing Street and in the Labour party.  Well-connected then, which suggests his assertion that the parties will all produce their more-devo proposals “well before the Referendum” is informed and well-founded.

But there’s also a touch of bombast and arrogance. He likes to boss these things.  Often, this is through physical tactics, such as when he walked on to the stage of an Edinburgh Book Festival panel event long after the other participants. Such behaviour is all very well, but I can’t help thinking someone somewhere is keeping score and waiting for the opportunity to bring him down a peg or two.  Or maybe I’m just hopeful that the Yes camp will be devoting a little time and energy to working out how to get under his skin.

Still, he knows a thing or two and peppers his arguments with a swirl of facts and figures. He says what he knows so commandingly that few appear willing to attempt to dismantle his arguments.  On Thursday night, he asserted that the UK got the EU rebate because of our highly productive agriculture sector which as anyone who knows anything about Europe knows, is tripe.

Not that Yes-Blair was prepared to part from his lines to challenge such assertions.  Looking tanned and relaxed, the Chief Executive of Yes Scotland is confident before audiences like this, indeed most audiences these days.  But I go back to what I said before – this is not natural operating territory for Blair Jenkins and I can’t help thinking this is as good as it gets. Which is a worry.

Also worrisome is how tired those lines sound. They’ve been repeated ad nauseam, the same arguments largely being said the same way and I’m not sure that was the right approach for this audience, which was after all mostly made up of partisans. Nothing either of the Blairs said was likely to change minds: what that audience was there to see was a knock-out blow, of the two leaders of their respective campaigns going toe to toe, with one emerging the winner. There were patches in the proceedings when that began to happen: if I’d been scoring, it would have been points equal.

But if Mr Jenkins wants to win these encounters with his counterpart, he needs to depart from the script and display his knowledge of the detail of some of these disputed areas.  Either play No-Blair at his own game to win or play the game differently.

Moreover, trying to frame the Yes arguments constantly within the realm of certainties is not entirely helpful. Taking ownership of some of the Better Together arguments dulls their impact and leaves them looking for new ground – uncertainty and risk would be key ones. And the answers on EU membership seemed way behind events – even the SNP has moved on from the position of our membership wouldn’t end line. In such gladitorial contests, more dismantling of the Better Together arguments is needed:  resorting to jibes about Project Fear just jars. There’s a way of undermining their argument without resorting to their low blows.

After the debate, I was reminded by No-Blair of a short discourse we’d had on the idea of city states and that I’d said I would write a complimentary blog on him when he was proved right. And yes, he is right – this would appear to be central to Labour’s more-powers plan and more on that in a separate blog later – and I am more than happy to acknowledge that I heard it from Mr McDougall first.

But if he expects me to gush and simper, dream on. You might think you’re all that, I couldn’t possibly agree. I can’t help thinking that if you come up against the right opponent, you’re ripe for the taking.

In fact, Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, who chaired the debate did an exemplary job, using his considerable knowledge of the political scene in Scotland to keep both Blairs in check and hold them to account. If anyone emerged a winner, it was him.

Relaxed? Not fairly, not nearly. I’m outraged.

Today, my twitter timeline is on fire. Because I refused to toe the line and dared to speak my mind.

I had the temerity to suggest that I am not even remotely relaxed by the current storm engulfing the independence referendum campaign. And here’s why.

First, the hacking issue. This is the most serious and deeply troubling issue. If as has been alleged, Yes Scotland’s emails have been hacked, then that has to be fully investigated by the police and done so expeditiously. We all have to await the outcome of that investigation to find out what has gone on and if there has been criminal behaviour then charges must be brought and prosecuted, if the evidence is there to support such action.

This is the bit of the story that has legs. If there is any link to a Scottish newspaper, then frankly that blatt is toast. If hacking has been shown to occur, then we might yet get a McLeveson – and not before time.

If – and it’s a very big if – there is any connection whatsoever to anyone on the pro-union side of the debate, no matter, how tenuous, then that is potentially a game-changer. If those who would seek to preserve the constitutional status quo would stoop so low, would in effect break the law and every unwritten rule of campaigning in order to win, well they’ve lost.

Not just the argument, but potentially the vote too.

Yes supporters are outraged and so am I. But there’s no schadenfreude here. This not only could change the result of the referendum but the nature of political campaigning forever. We will have lost something from our body politic and that could reverberate for years if not decades. The big losers will be the Scottish people, who will feel more disengaged than ever before. Turnouts could plummet as people turn their backs on the democratic process.

And who could blame them? Because their democratic rights have been entrusted to political parties and players – which include the media – and a significant section could well be found wanting. Trust in the process will be gone forever.

But that isn’t the only trust issue, which brings me to the other source of my outrage. That Elliott Bulmer article asked for by Yes Scotland and paid for by it, yet presented when published as being written by an independent constitutional expert. He might well be the latter but on this occasion, this single instance, he cannot claim and should not have allowed himself to be portrayed as the former.

Will the Scottish media ever trust the provenance of any article pitched by Yes Scotland again? Not without forensic examination. Leaving aside how this knowledge got out there, out there it is and it has consequences: Yes Scotland is going to find it very hard in the next few months to get column inches for pro-independence pieces it wants out there, putting the pro-independence campaign at a distinct disadvantage.

Did anyone in Yes Scotland stop to consider the potential consequences of someone finding out that this single article was effectively commissioned? Did they weigh up the gain against the possible loss? Clearly not.

And it is this willingness to play fast and loose with a cause and a campaign entrusted to it that outrages me most. I am indeed a fairly marginal activist these days, but among us, my family has over 100 years’ collective activism – that’s unpaid for time, energy, toil and shoe leather working in support of independence. Doing our bit when this was the least fashionable of political causes – when holding a deposit or winning a council by-election was considered the dizzy height of success. And we are not alone.

Consider the unpaid, voluntary slog of all the SNP’s elected politicians which got them and their party to where they are now. Now consider the sacrifices, physical, emotional and material, which many more have made in their lifetimes to get here.

Then there’s the painstakingly crafted reputation for trust and competence which the SNP has carved out in the hearts and votes of the Scottish people. And the desperate attempts by Labour and Better Together to dismantle it.

And here’s Yes Scotland doing their work for them.

I don’t care that they do this. That this is how it’s aye been. That they mould and manipulate the institutions and structures to keep things as they are. The means do not justify the ends. Not when you call for honesty, integrity and transparency in the campaign. And not when you preach Scottish values that you appear not to wish to bother to practise yourself.

we are not them. We have been trying to persuade the Scottish people that we are different and that if they trust us, their lives could be different too. And when, more than at any other time, we needed to be, to show that we are different, we have been caught with our pants down.

The campaign which is fuelled by our money, which relies on us to give it legs, which we trusted to take us over the finishing line, has let every volunteer activist who ever did anything to get us to this point down. It chose to play the game, for a narrow daily advantage. And at what cost?

Every chip to that notion of competence, every dent in the shield of trust is potentially one persuadable dissuaded. No better than the rest, that’s what some voters will discern from this unseemly spat.

This, unlike the hacking scandal, is a media storm which will no doubt subside in short order but who knows what damage has been done in the meantime. To the campaign’s reserves of energy and resilience too.

The messenger has become the message and the vehicle is now the story. Hope St, you have a problem. And I doubt very much if others are quite so relaxed about it as you claim to be.