Whatever the final result, the whole of UK politics has to wake up to some powerful lessons of Scotland
Posted on 18 September 2014 | 9:09pm
Whether it is YES or NO, one thing is certain – UK politics has changed forever as a result of this referendum.
I will rephrase that – if UK politics does not change, does not wake up to some of the lessons of recent weeks and months, it means it has a death wish.
The first lesson is to understand how important it is that the referendum has exploded the myth that people are not interested in politics. They are. Provided they feel the politics in question has relevance to their lives. Provided they think it matters. Provided they think they can make a difference on big questions about their future. It has been wonderful to be on buses, trains, street corners, in homes, shops and restaurants in Scotland, and hear young and old talking about things that actually matter, rather than who will win X Factor. Politicians need to find the voice, the issues, and the passions, to keep that going.
The second lesson is that political campaigns have to be built from the bottom up. Ok, the YES campaign had the unexpected windfall from multi-million pound lottery winners who believed in their cause. But you do not get so many posters in so many windows, so many stickers in cars and on lamp-posts, so many badges on lapels without leadership and organisation coming together with belief.
YES learned more from Barack Obama’s campaigns than the YES WE CAN slogan. They learned that in a world cynical about both media and politics the real persuaders are people: people who passionately believe what they believe and can communicate that to others, friends and family, strangers and colleagues. They learned that social networks are there to be exploited not feared. They also learned that a positive message will be heard provided you communicate it loudly and clearly enough. There is a message of hope for all politics, and all causes, that YES made so much of the weather in this campaign, despite having all the main UK parties, most of business, and most of the media against them.
Now a positive campaign is easier if your key word is YES. It always struck me as absurd to call a NO campaign negative. It kind of goes with the territory. NO is somewhat of a negative word, you might have noticed. I do wonder, as we look back on the negotiations between Alex Salmond and David Cameron on the details of the referendum, whether the Prime Minister even tried to have the YES question as ‘Scotland should remain part of the UK,’ and the NO question as ‘Scotland should be independent from the rest of the UK.’
Somehow I doubt it, Salmond having told me that the government did not even raise another vital issue in this, namely what if any say the rest of the UK had in a debate that could fundamentally change nationhood for all parts of the UK.
That was on March 14 2014, six months ago. I remember it because it was the day Tony Benn died. It is also the day that I realised it was entirely possible that Alex Salmond could cause a political earthquake. This after I spent several hours in his company, first interviewing him for GQ magazine, then having lunch and chewing the fat re life, sport, politics, the state of the universe.
There were several lasting impressions I took from the several hours I spent with him. The first was that he had been to charm school. He was a different character to the one I first knew when he was a low impact, highly bumptious SNP MP at Westminster many moons ago. I arrived to find that he and his staff, knowing that both of us would be getting media bids to pay tribute to Tony Benn, had organised separate spots in the grounds of the Aberdeen hotel where we were meeting.
The second impression was that when it came to the interview he was hard to pin down on the key questions at the heart of the referendum – currency, EU, NATO, pensions, debt. Plus ca change. He was pretty hard to pin down to the end and, if the vote shows he has fallen short, failure to answer those basic questions will be one of the main reasons. The third impression – this is important in a campaign – was that he did not tire of making the same points that he had made a million times before. But the most overwhelming impression he left was that he genuinely thought he could win. I could feel it in his words, and I could see it in his eyes and his body language.
I could also see the beginnings of some of the more powerful dividing lines he was intending to lay down. Scotland v Westminster. Hope v fear. And how do you like the idea of getting rid of the Tories from Scotland forever?
The positivity that oozed from him was the result of a lightbulb moment inspired by a woman who we can probably describe as a life coach. She told him some time ago that whenever he came on TV he always seemed grumpy, negative and critical of others. People would warm to him more if he portrayed a more positive persona. He has and they have.
At the time I was working hard on my next book about WINNERS and winning mindsets, and after I left him I was alarmed enough to contact Better Together campaigners from the main parties to warn them that he definitely had this most vital ingredient in the winning mindset – the genuine belief that he could win, whatever the polls said. Having that feeling is such an advantage in any competitive environment. It makes you so much more focused about doing the things you need to do to win, particularly if coming from behind.
Yet it took an opinion poll two weekends before polling finally to galvanize Westminster and the business community into really getting into the fight. Till then Tory ministers bought the line – mistakenly in my view – that because they are unpopular in Scotland they had to keep their visits to a minimum. Months ago – as when I suggested to George Osborne he should go to Scotland, take the heat, take the flak, stay there for long enough to force Salmond into having to defend the half-baked positions he held on Scotland’s economic future – the issue was less their toxicity than their arguments and they should have made the economic and constitutional arguments more powerfully than they did. My sense is that they believed their role was to provide funding for the campaign and get the Labour machine to run it.
But the Labour machine, for all the fantastic people who have slogged their guts out on the streets of Scotland right up till 10pm, is not what it was and Labour in Scotland has been in decline. Or else how did Salmond get the Holyrood majority he needed to hold the referendum in the first place?
There are hard questions for Labour in how this happened. The Party made assumptions about Scotland both when we were in power and since we lost it. There are a lot of good things that Labour did for Scotland. But three terms were not transformative enough for many who yesterday went with nationalism rather than traditional solidarity. Also, politicians need to understand that they and their activists must be reaching out into their communities all the time, solving problems, meeting challenges for people, and also finding the next generation of supporters who will help build the kind of ground campaign the YES campaign did. Added to which – and here is another vital element in any winning organisation – the comradeship and solidarity Labour people like to speak of was not always present in the relationships of politicians who should all, always, be trying to pull in the same direction. Here is one of the oldest lessons of all: the need for teamship and unity around shared goals.
None of the parties can go to the next election thinking the old ways of campaigning will do. Good campaigns are built in years not weeks. They require ambassadors in every street, every shop, every workplace, every college, every institution in the country. Above all they require messages of change.
In my visits to the Better Together campaign HQ it was fascinating to see how well people from different parties were getting on. Yet the moment an election campaign starts we feel the need to make out there are massive differences when in truth often there aren’t.
Salmond was able to excite people’s interest in political debate because he put forward a genuinely big choice from which flowed genuinely big arguments.
I happen to think his proposition was wrong for Scotland and wrong for the UK. I also think it is remarkable that he could get right to the end of this campaign without having the answers to fundamental questions; also that at times the assertions he made were ludicrous, and at times some way off the truth. But you have to respect the way he just kept going over decades with a cause he was sure would one day find its time.
It is remarkable that Salmond was able to capture the anti politics mood because he is as professional a politician as they come. But he was able to transcend it because of the size of the argument he was putting forward. There is a lesson in that for others.
Also, it is not just Scots who feel remote from London and remote from power. One of the less appealing sides of Salmond’s campaign has been the idea that Scotland uniquely feels harmed by the relationship with the rest of the UK when financially it does better than other regions. You can go to any northern, Midlands, West Country or coastal town in England and find plenty of the same grievances about London and Westminster politics.
Politics has to do a better job of showing its relevance to people’s lives. It has to involve them more in policy making and in shaping the agenda and campaigns of the future. Politicians need to stand up for themselves better too.
The ramifications of today, whatever the final outcome, are huge. The constitutional debate is at the heart of our politics again. How the leaders and parties respond to this – and how they relate it to people’s bigger concerns about jobs and living standards and how we feel about ourselves as a country – will dictate how well they do in the future. I for one hope we now see the fight properly being taken to UKIP – instead of the pandering so far – to make and win the case for Britain in Europe; that the House of Commons faces up to the fact that the reason it seems so outmoded is because it is; that the House of Lords can disappear and instead more powerful cities and regions act as a check on the centre. Above all that we all relearn the lesson that politics at its best is about big things, important things; big issues and challenges, not the piddling processology and minor differences dressed up as major that so often pass for debate.
Scotland has led the way in showing how a big debate can re-energise our passions in our politics. There is now room for a fascinating debate across the country about what kind of people we are, what kind of politics we want, and how that politics can better serve families and communities. It has to happen. Tomorrow needs to be Day One of a new politics. ‘Westminster’ needs to lead it, not follow. If it doesn’t, then there will be more seismic shocks to follow.