Despite the tightening of the polls and the way the momentum in this race is all one way, towards not just a Yes but what could well be a resounding one, there’s still an arrogance at the heart of the No camp that’s hard to credit, but could well be our best friend.
Positivity is everything in a political campaign. You can win by being unrelentingly negative, and people have proved it, but what tends to happen is that when the conduct on one side hits a certain level the opposition follows suit and unleashes its own dogs of war.
At that point, the campaign ceases to be about issues and becomes a game of gutter-ball. The voters desert in droves. There is no democratic mandate for either side, and the winners end up as bloodied and battered, and without credibility, as the side which lost.
Yet, a lot of people think that’s the only way to react when the opposition “goes negative.” Some people can’t resist the urge, and others think every attack has to be countered with another or you are putting yourself at a profound disadvantage. It isn’t true.
The way Yes Scotland has behaved in this campaign, with probity and integrity, trying to stay “on message”, has done us as much credit as it has done us good. The one-way direction of the polls shows the public understands that only one side is even trying to make its case.
I’ve been quite busy for the last few weeks, and haven’t had as much time to write as I was hoping for, but I’ve been watching, and waiting, for this much heralded “positive case for the union”, and you know what? I ain’t seen it yet. I don’t expect to see it.
Negative campaigning is easy. Anyone can throw a ball into the dirt, and with a subservient press that is willing to print whatever Better Together writes, often unquestioningly, they can do it basically without restrictions like reality and facts getting in the way.
Recycling the same old stories over and over again – currency, Europe, NATO – becomes the norm. You can even get creative, by throwing a few random darts at the board – mobile phone “roaming fees”, border points, Dr Who – to see if any of them stick. It requires no real effort though.
Campaigns which start out that way become flabby, and lazy. They lack the vigour and vitality which is essential late in the day, in that sprint towards the finish.
Positive campaigning is invigorating, not only for the electorate but for the campaigners too. There is a different vibe to being part of a positive campaign. I’ve been part of both in my time, and I know which one I’d rather volunteer for.
As I am certain there are a lot of Better Together members who know full well they are pushing lies, smears, innuendos, distorting facts and ignoring reality, I have to conclude that many of them are dying to get this campaign over with so they can swear off political activity for life, because it takes a certain kind of person to embrace that sort of thing wholeheartedly, and they are rare.
Besides, as I’ve said repeatedly to people, and say again here, negative campaigning purely and simply does not work when you are faced with a rival campaign that refuses to do the same. For all we’re accused of bullying and harassing people – and it may be true for a small number, which you’ll get in any campaign this size – the conduct of Team Yes has been pretty exemplary. Some of the incidents which have been highlighted to demonstrate how nasty and awful we are have been pretty laughable, such as the accusation that what happened to Bill Munro was out of order.
I mean, excuse me for thinking that a businessman who sent an email to his entire workforce telling them they’d probably lose their jobs if the country votes Yes, and who based this threat on an utterly discredited report is the real bully. To call that email of his a work of fiction would be to give it more credit than it deserves, and I laugh at the mock outrage of a media who thinks we were the ones who were in the wrong, when what we did was point out that his conduct was deplorable and that, perhaps, a man who behaved so egregiously did not deserve our hard earned money.
Negative campaigning often comes with a backlash, and not simply from the opposite camp. When you are making wild, and false, assertions it is normal for the ordinary voter, who is more clued up than most politicians seem to realise, to say “Wait a second …”
One other thing about campaigns built on fear; they ignore a fundamental truth that seems to have escaped Better Together, but which any televangelist could have told them. Those “fire and brimstone” preachers who pack out churches all across the American south didn’t get rich by telling everyone they were going to Hell. They got rich by telling their congregations how everyone else is going to Hell, but that they could avoid the same fate.
Without hope, you cannot get people to look to the skies.
Can Better Together offer any hope at all?
When the mainstream parties are arguing over who will cut the furthest and deepest, it’s hard to imagine any “positive” that doesn’t involve precisely the kind of wispy sentimentality some expected from the Yes campaign; appeals to flag, to slogans, to symbolism, to history.
Forget that, for some, the flag in question is one they want no association with. Forget that the slogans are just as unwelcome. Ignore the fact that the symbolism is antiquated and backward, and nothing a forward-thinking nation state would voluntarily adopt, and try not to think too much about the history and how it has often been something to be thoroughly ashamed of. Ignore all that. The people who’ve been preaching the evils of nationalism in the context of Scotland (but who have no problem advocating it for the Ukraine) have only the fuzzy notion of British nationalism to sustain them once the scare stories of Project Fear run out.
That is powder-puff stuff when put against the heavy artillery of ideas and vision on the Yes side. They are asking people to choose between the chance of building a new nation and maintaining one that is no longer fit for purpose.
This corrupt coalition of cutters has turned rich against poor, unions against bosses, public sector workers against their private sector counterparts, those in work against those who are not, it’s turned people not dependent on the state against those who are, immigrants against those who live here at the present time, the young against the old and they have made the whole of this island subservient to the needs of a single city, even letting it dictate our foreign policy.
Yet they call themselves Better Together. They call us the separatists, and they ask us to believe that this is still a “United Kingdom.”
They are not fooling anyone but themselves. Do they even believe their own nonsense?
We know some of them don’t. We know it for a fact. One of their executives, Rob Shorthouse, has already given his own view of the campaign; it is something that “pays the mortgage”, and there his enthusiasm ends. One wonders just how many people labouring away for their wages under the Better Together banner feel the same way. The constituent parts of the campaign detest each other, and that alone undermines their claim that we can all live together as a happy family.
I wonder how many of their voters are really convinced, even those who claim to be solidly in the No camp? I suspect that on the day of destiny some of them are not going to be able to close the deal. I think some of them are going to get to the ballot box and find they just can’t do it. Others might not even get that far. It’s hard to motivate you to do something that sticks in your craw, and this will be a particular problem for those on the left, who see their politics abandoned by the Westminster elite, and who will find no succour in voting Labour.
I think their lead is soft. I think it could collapse with one big push, because the side that wants this most, the one that has the most invested in it, is the one that’s going to win.
So I am putting my faith in the idea that our voters are up for this, that they are more commited to the cause, and this will be especially true if No maintains its steadfast view that Scotland’s people do not want to be the masters of their own destiny, and that this whole campaign is the vanity project of the SNP.
Let them underestimate us all the way to polling day.
Let their outriders claim the victory before it’s clinched, and cross your fingers that their own voters believe it.
Then pray hard. Pray for rain.