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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.


  • Ehtch

    As if I wanted Scotland to leave the Union ( he says now), I just wanted to see Westminster shaking, that is all. But darn, I wish it was a closer loss, by 0.1% and I would have been well satisfied. Welsh song I sent to my north-west US friend the other day, that he is showing everywhere Ali. ; )

  • Michele

    I’ve just heard for the first time that the lower voting age situation yesterday (down to 16yrs) applied exclusively to the YES referendum and will not apply for locals or generals.

    How is it possible to see that as anything but cynical, well done to any Scots yoof that were not bought.

  • elainesk

    Scottish Labour are dead! Over a thousand joined SNP,many who were Labour.l was until yesterday 40yrs Labour but l joined SNP.You see our massive movement for Yes,watch our mass movement to make Labour extinct in Scotland like the Tories. Have you heard of a saying “Dont get mad,get even”

    • Ehtch

      I have been quite disturbed on Labour’s conduct running up to this referendum. Tell me if I am wrong, I thought the original aim of The Labour Party was self-determination for people, so therefore they should have supported the YES vote, and stuff the consequences to themselves at Westminster.

      • Michele

        That’s quite a narrow definition of self determination.
        I’m a burglar, I want to have more stuff than you’ve got so hand some over.

        So which one of the two does have self-determination if only one of them has a sockful of marbles?

        • Ehtch

          Scotland is being robbed mercilessly by Westminster of it’s natural resources, all to pay for the Queen and to bankroll archaic carry ons that are from the nineteenth century and earlier.

          • Michele

            What are its natural resources then (that are theirs and theirs alone)?

            Isolationists lost, get over it 🙂

      • mightymark

        No – the Scots were offered two different versions of self determination – one of independence the other within the Union. They just happened, very wisely in my view, to choose the one you dislike.

    • Ehtch

      …and I suppose everyone has heard about the big fuss over vote rigging accusations in the Scottish referendum? Paranoia? Who knows! But Scotland is critically very important to the UK/Whitehall machine after all, so…

      And the turnout seemed unfeasibly high…

    • Michele

      Could you describe exactly what you wish to get even about that you ascribe to Labour?
      Am really curious.

    • Michele

      What is you want to get even about?
      Forgive what might seem ignorance but I’ve heard of swings and roundabouts and mardy (which behaviour will doubtless continue onandonandon spoilsportishly).

    • Michele

      You’ve posted elsewhere that in Fife & Kirkcaldy ‘…. we all voted a resounding Yes …..’

      I think that is incorrect, naturally just a mistake yes?

  • Michele

    I’m not celebrating that Mr Salmond must be feeling dreadful this weekend and not in agreement with those that think it’s ‘honourable’ of him to fall on his sword.

    He has the right to his opinion and the right to be disappointed that it’s not shared by the majority.

    He has the right to stay on as leader, he did his very best and has the right to fail. It’s been very odd for the past couple of days to hear people who were applauding him pre-vote now celebrating him doing the ‘right’ thing. they’re the ones imo who’re unreliable.

  • Michele

    I’ve posted somewhere (possibly even in this thread) against Scots MPs being able to vote on England-only topics in Westminster.

    I suppose we have to be careful what we wish for here with the suggestions they be barred on such topics.

    If they were disallowed in future we’d be losing mostly-Labour votes (on top of those ‘with their conscience’ votes we used to get from Lib Dems before they were bribed in to coalition).

    I’ll repeat something I just heard on R4 …… bitter together.

  • Dave Simons

    A 45% minority cannot be ignored, so it’s a bit silly for ‘Better Together’ campaigners to celebrate. Rather they should take heed of a deeply divided response and behave accordingly. I also find the Team Cameron response – immediately putting the West Lothian question on the agenda – typically vindictive and opportunistic. The team should learn a bit of diplomacy but, as always, they behave like the bunch of amateurs and dilettantes that they are. Their input into the ‘No’ campaign was minimal and miles too late, yet unfortunately they stand to reap all the benefits next year. I hope that 40 or so Scottish MPs will continue to vote in the House of Commons on English matters – ‘Better Together’, as was said recently, though swiftly forgotten in the Westminster Village.

    • Michele

      It’s weird isn’t it?
      One has to wonder what changed so many Scottish people’s minds since the seats outcome in 2010 (if not the sell-out of the very coalition)

      ….. …. or if not that then the ongoing situation in Labour 🙁

      Labour 41
      Lib Dem 11
      SNP 6
      Tory 1

    • Michele

      Durrr at the sillyness in my last one, not really poss to compare seats results with grand totals is it. Lines?

  • Michele

    Re Aiannucci’s tweet ….. “For someone who loves the Union, David Cameron seems unusually keen to divide it into its constituent parts” ….. Cameron might have always been playing a sneaky blinder. While pretending to capitulate to SNP-ers with concessions in return for ‘NOs’ but either way the UK Govt would be changed in their favour forever.

    There was rumbling pre-18th about Scots MPs voting on ‘English’ matters in HoC in our obvious titfortat way but hopefully that rumbling stops.

    If ‘we’ stop Scottish MPs’ votes we lose an almost totally-Labour group in Govt and any semblance of left-right balance. Sad to say and due to boundaries, England’s MPs are majorly Tory and even now we need almost every other minority party’s support to defeat a Tory motion (I do like that word applied to a Tory product).

    I do wonder whether LibDem MPs were aware or ignorant of this post-NO twist ….. To what level have they sunk?

  • Michele

    Off topic, sorry 🙁
    An example of yet more Murdoch-owned ‘speak down to the masses’ tripe, brought to us by t’grundian:

    I can’t decide which is worse, the sexism or the jollity about such a serious matter.

  • Michele

    We also need to wake up to some underhand un-timely inaudible announcements – more sneaky blinders stuff hidden within privatisation/s.

    I use Royal Mail a lot, less joyously than I used to and usually at PO Counters as I need weighings, proofs of posting etc.
    I therefore had not seen till this week the sliver of paper sellotaped to my nearest pillarbox.

    The LAST collection is now at 9.30am, meaning something put in during the day has no way of being delivered tomorrow.
    The scruffy bit of paper is attached to the very timetable that used to prevail but no longer does AND adjacent to the little brass plaque advising the next collection the last time it was used = several months ago.

    I daresay lots of RM employees enjoy less nightshifts but am sure many others found them convenient for sharing childcare within the family ….. Have I got cotton wool in my ears or has this change been as widely notified as it should have been? It changes the whole quality of a so-called First Class stamp.

    Vincey just off-loading pension responsibilities or actually sneakily also reducing RM commitments pre-sale (the changes started during the last few months of public ownership).

  • Michele

    This IS very hard-hearted of me and maybe shouldn’t get on ….. I wish David Cameron would stop invoking Ivan as the proofof his love for the NHS.

    He never brings up the topic of help at home from his local council’s social services dept. He already had 5/6 private part-timers cleaning and shopping and used another from K&C – claiming it was the only way he could assess the quality of social services provision. This in a borough whose population ranges from the people in 10-bedroom villas in W8 to those in 10-bedsit chopped-up villas in W11.

    Nor did he bring up Jeremy Hunt (inner-cheek chewing skivvy):
    A&Es being ‘changed’, not shut:

    What else to expect with the Machiavellian Saatchis in situ 😉

  • Michele

    “If you are on minimum wage and work 30hrs per week you will pay NO TAX” (tra-la-lah with wriggling hips like those he had when the Queen coooed at him – yuk – is he 14?).

    Nope just as, if you’re on that 0hrs contract, you will NOT be included in unemployment figures in a week you work 0hrs ….. have I got that right? Spin spin spin ……. thud….. just banged in to the wall.

    Perhaps that person is counted that week, but not the next and the figures are averaged over engineered terms.

    Perhaps you DO get counted if you get no hours one week and need to claim for whatever support is available …….. we need to know …. we need a whistle blower.

  • Michele

    Hmmmmm have just heard a Lib Dem declare that his party might need to make sure the public really understand more about the 11-letter word he described as ‘cooperation’.

    Yep and he needs to know it’s not made up of the twelve that make ‘capitulation’ (or in my words ‘you were bought, own it’).

  • Craig Thomas

    I read this before my post on your Albania article, Thanks so much.

    “Politicians need to stand up for themselves better too.” Dead right. Politicians have been running scared of the media – as you’d know better than virtually anyone in the whole UK – for far, far too long. It’s long past time they stopped apologizing and started to bite back, and I mean hard-working, caring MPs (especially) from all the parties.

    And who are the last group of people to take responsibility for the lousy mess that stands for British political culture in 2014? Broadcasters and journalists. It’s always cynical, out-of-touch politicians who spoil and ruin things, it’s never them. Never their weedy, under-researched questions based on inadequate study of whatever subject is under discussion – especially in the field of economics – nor their biases, nor the unmerited extent of their self-confidence, nor their breathtakingly unaccountable deference to anyone who appears in the name of the Conservative and Unionist Party. No, it’s always the politicians, who almost week by week come to look more and more like the poor bloody infantry of the whole organism we call “British Politics”. Our schools are chronically failing to give their charges a political education; our media have signally failed to do the job; so the politicians will just have to start doing it themselves.

    Bloody good luck to them if they try.

  • Michele

    Is the Govt deliberately trying to confuse people?

    PM constantly talks about a record of UK ‘paying down its debts’ which suggests our international loan/s is/are being reduced. He doesn’t bother reminding us of the method for doing so, perhaps that’s flattering if he actually thinks we know and is using it straightforwardly).

    William Hague constantly yaddered last week about ‘paying down the deficit’ does that even make sense?

    Some of us are feeling this less than others, **** knows how it must feel to be known as ’employed’ while on a
    0-hrs contract – note to Reaguns 🙂 ….. that’s what I would agree with being described as slavery.

  • Michele

    Oh how I wish Osbo and Alexander would come clean about these new private pension rights.

    It has nothing at all to do with giving people rights over their own money ….. the tra-la-lah about that is rubbish. The underlying reason is them planning for NI savings in the future …… to stuff people who do withdraw then have a few years of spree then find their basic pension alone is not enough to live on but will no longer have the right to get NI top-ups as they could now if that state+private pension was inadequate.

    It’s a pragmatic enough idea and one which, if they were honest Osbo and Danny would be boasting about, to not warn people about future effects is disgusting. Evil?

  • DanteOD

    Salmond’s campaign was energised b the fact he did not have to account for the consequences of his policy. He could pretty much promise anything-in fact he did. The NO campaign worked on the basis that they were fighting on a level playing field. They weren’t, if Salmond offered the electorate a magic kilt that allowed the wearer to win the Lottery (some of his rhetoric was close to that) then the NOs felt they had to counter it. I don’t think the Referendum will change British politics. What might change it is UKIP and the rise of localism. You can’t parachute in candidates when the incumbent has local answers to local questions and the electorate are willing to forgive them a bit of invective as long as they stop a few houses being built on Green Belt.