It’s Time For The Yes Campaign To Seize The Agenda

Where do we stand in the referendum campaign? After the signing of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, we could have expected that the public debate would move on from the ‘how’ of independence to the issues of substance. Unfortunately, the closing months of 2012 were largely shaped by yet more process debate – this time, over Europe.

It is obvious by now that the press are treating the constitutional debate as a simple extension of party politics. The press narrative is of a battle between Big Men, with Alex Salmond on one side and the ranked masses of Unionist politicians, headed by Alistair Darling, on the other. This narrative is unhelpful: it traps the determination of Scotland’s future inside a political bubble which is increasingly ignored and resented by the public at large.

‘Grassroots’ has become something of a shibboleth amongst independence supporters. Yet often those same supporters find themselves thinking in terms of the Big Men narrative – wondering what Salmond or Cameron’s next move will be, or discussing how Yes Scotland or Better Together are operating. It is not enough to call ourselves grassroots – we must think and act like a grassroots movement. The announcement that 100 campaigning groups have already been launched, straddling geographical areas and issue groups, signals real potential. In 2013, we must push this model further, taking the debate away from politicians and media hacks and writing our own narrative. We must create the campaign which we wish to be a part of.

The purpose of Yes Scotland should be to make itself redundant by the turn of 2014: to motivate supporters and set in motion such effective local campaigning structures that natural momentum makes a national organisation unnecessary. Yes Scotland will, of course, not disappear – it will be necessary to fight the battle inside the political bubble and engage with the media narrative. The press need a ‘leadership’ because a clash of Big Men is the only story they know how to write.

It can be asked, with newspaper sales plummeting, whether the press even matters. The press matters to the extent that they are allowed to set the terms of the debate: the substance of a debate on EU constitutional law might not have been the hot topic in pubs across Scotland, but people pick up on such background noise and it shapes their conversations with campaigners and sympathetic friends.

The problem with the EU debate has not been that the No campaign are right on substance, but that the Yes side have too often looked to be in firefighting mode, forced into response by repeated press stories. This matters because it then shapes the conversations held in pubs and workplaces and when dealing with sceptical friends. The hysterical press response to an eccentric but largely harmless article by Alasdair Gray is another example. Rather than dealing with the two sides of the constitutional debate on their merit, we are reduced to discussing whether or not our civic-, non-ethnic- nationalism is simply veiled Anglophobia. It says a lot when Kenny Farquharson, Deputy Editor of the Scotland of Sunday, jokes on twitter that Fergus Ewing, a Government Minister, might start a fascist party in an independent Scotland (the tweet has since been deleted).

The ‘UK OK’ slogan exposes the intellectually vacuous case presented by the Unionist campaign. A nation scarred by poverty and deprivation, a situation further perpetuated by a flatlining economy, and where the growth in food banks has been welcomed by the Prime Minister as a shining example of the Big Society – this is not ‘OK’. It should be a basic starting point for this debate, regardless of which side you fall behind, to recognise that Scotland faces significant problems and to present a case to tackle these. Better Together is both incapable and unwilling to do so. The independence movement is in a much stronger position to tackle these issues, but the requirement for Yes Scotland to be a policy-neutral organisation means that it is the responsibility of the wider independence movement to provide these answers.

The positivity of the Yes campaign is both necessary and admirable. But there is a point when relentless positivity, positivity for positivity’s sake, begins to miss the point. It is necessary for Yes campaigners to seize the agenda and to do so requires an attack on the status quo that Better Together defends. It is necessary to go beyond a vision of self-determination, and point at the social and economic problems that make self-determination so necessary.

So what do we mean by a grassroots campaign? Escaping the traditional political structures means that we can create our narrative. We can – and we must – begin to set the terms of the discussion and move the debate onto the central issues of equality, economic development and the creation of a just society. This does not mean the launch of a thousand blogs or arguing with party hacks on twitter. It means an informed, enthusiastic mass of people willing to engage – not argue – with the concerns of their friends, colleagues and acquaintances. People will respond to people they know and trust in a way that they will never respond to politicians. Independence supporters can be assured by the strength of our arguments: if we engage the public imagination, we will win.

The response in the USA following the tragic elementary school shooting showed that the founding myth of a nation can powerfully shape public debate. The usefulness of national myths is something we have explored before. In the same way that libertarian ideals are embedded in the American consciousness, independence is an opportunity to embed social-democratic values in our own national consciousness. It is reasonable to expect that a referendum victory won on the principles of creating a fairer society and challenging the stain of poverty and inequality would lead to an independent nation where these values were cherished. How could any party seriously stand on a platform of removing free education in the aftermath of a referendum victory won largely on protecting universalism?

Nicola Sturgeon’s recent speech exploring social justice is an indication that the SNP are willing to fight the referendum on largely centre-left grounds, and this is to be welcomed for both pragmatic and ideological reasons. But this argument must extend beyond the SNP leadership and enter the independence movement as a whole.

It’s time to seize the agenda.