How not to campaign in Scotland

scottish independence photo
Photo by Lawrence OP

Yesterday there was a rally in Edinburgh in favour of a new Brexit referendum, apparently attended by about a thousand people. I wasn’t there – I was in Dundee for the AUOB March & Rally instead.

It seems to have been organised by People’s Vote, a campaign that shares its address with Open Britain, which is the successor to the official Remain organisation during the Brexit referendum. Open Britain’s Tory members left it during the last UK general election, and the SNP always campaigned on their own, so it’s effectively dominated by Labour and the Lib Dems.

The Edinburgh rally seems to be part of a UK tour – a so-called “Summer of Action”. That already makes it hard to tailor the message to a Scottish audience, but of course it could be done. At least they had avoided Union Jacks, gauging from the photos I’ve seen, which was better than the pro-EU March and Rally that I took part in back in March, where for instance EU Supergirl performed dressed in a Union Jack outfit.

Their list of speakers wasn’t great, however. They seem to have wanted to avoid elected politicians (the reports don’t agree whether Ming Campbell was speaking or not), but as a result they ended up including a lot of well-kent faces from the indyref No campaign, including Rory Bremner, Malcolm Macleod (from “Medics for No”) and Gavin Esler (who in his BBC role did a lot to talk up “Vote No Borders”). They could have included a similar number of Yes veterans, but they didn’t. This would already make Yes-leaning Scots uncomfortable with the set-up. Let’s not forget that a large number of Scots (and not just Yes campaigners) feel they got cheated by Better Together campaigners, who promised the Earth and delivered a Tory Brexit instead.

Pro-Yes Scots in the audience would then really have switched off when Femi decided to use a slogan that might work brilliantly in England without thinking through where he was:

During and after the indyref campaign, the media blasted us with stuff like this. As a result, the Yes-leaning half of the Scottish population (and let’s not forget, it’s much more than half of the Remain voters in Scotland) are severely allergic to former Better Together campaigners, to Union Jacks, and to people professing their love to the UK. That means that yesterday’s event was counter-productive and is likely to have increased the opposition to a “People’s Vote” in Scotland rather than making it more popular. If that was the best they could do, it would have been better if they hadn’t gone to Scotland at all.

To make things worse, the prominent Remain campaign Tanja Bueltmann, who is an SNP member (although she’s currently based in England), then reacted badly to Scottish tweeters pointing out that Femi’s message didn’t work in Scotland. For instance, when @TheRealLekraw said this: “Yeah, I don’t think that’s a line that’s going to work on half the population of Scotland”, her reaction was: “And you really had to say that? Brexit is the biggest challenge of our time. It trumps everything. And we must recognise it for that.” That reaction of course made other people try to explain how she was missing the point, and the whole thing escalated – as Twitter rows tend to.

I’m surprised that Tanja Bueltmann couldn’t see herself why Femi’s message was really inflammatory in Scotland, a place that is still strongly polarised. I guess Scotland has changed a lot in the last seven years, and anybody who wasn’t based here during that time might not realise how things have changed.

It’s difficult to conduct cross-party campaigns in Scotland these days, and it can easily be disastrous to copy English campaigns without changing anything.

If they really wanted to campaign for a new Brexit referendum north of the border, they should have ensured that the list of speakers was balanced from an independence point of view, and they should have checked that all the speakers were aware of Scottish politics. Let’s face it, they would never have platformed and promoted a speaker who had said that they loved the EU because they wanted to dismantle the UK, would they?

Also, I’m not sure talking to 1000 pro-EU people in Edinburgh was a great idea when they could instead have been speaking to 12,000 pro-indy people in Dundee – many of whom definitely weren’t convinced of the merits of a second referendum on the same terms as the first one, so it really could have made a difference.

All they achieved by talking about loving the UK and then getting into fights with independence supporters on Twitter was to convince a lot of Scots that the People’s Vote campaign is just yet another Unionist front. Surely that’s not what they wanted.

If they’re not careful, they could actually turn a large number of Scots – the very ones who campaigned for Remain in 2016 – actively against a new Brexit referendum, and that would be a shame, especially when there’s already a huge majority in favour of one in Scotland.

5 thoughts on “How not to campaign in Scotland

  • 19/08/2018 at 13:08
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    Hi Thomas,

    Another good article.

    I am with some others in not really understanding why there was any need (as you mention too) to persuade Scots of the merits of a second EU Ref when a majority are in favour already. I think that a good many of those are Scottish indy supporters too because there is a lot of cross-over with Remain sentiment amongst Yessers. I think this is mainly because (as well as some people in principle just being supportive of the EU) Yes/Remainers do not want to be left at the mercy of the Tories after any Brexit and both EURef 2 and indyref2 offer ways in which this might be avoided.

    Instead, as you say, yesterday’s event looks like an own goal and has people asking why it was needed at all. As a consequence of the make-up of much of the list of speakers (as, again, you outline) it was left looking like the people involved were either i) trying to tell Scots to shut off one of the avenues of escape, ii) actively hostile to independence, because they are hardcore unionist (M Campbell being a notable example) who would rather we didn’t escape Tory Brexit if it meant independence.

    Well-reasoned piece, as I say.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  • 19/08/2018 at 22:26
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    There are many of us who have supported independence for decades AND consider ourselves to be Europeans also. We are genuinely worried about how Westminster is handling the Brexit fiasco. Such demos that you dismiss so condescendingly are but an attempt to let the people know that there are folk willing to stand up for the EU. Just like the – admittedly much more successful – marches for independence.
    A no deal Brexit is almost upon us so we should all – irrespective of political allegiance – be doing our damndest to stop it. If we have any sense, that is.

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    • 19/08/2018 at 22:30
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      Indeed, and I’m one of them – I’m an EU citizen. I want to stop Brexit, but what Tanja Bueltmann did yesterday was counterproductive and made it harder to do so.

      Reply
  • 19/08/2018 at 22:33
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    I have outgrown the EU. I think we have all we need as members of EFTA and dont need to jump through hoops. I became disolutioned when Junkers and his predecessor in 2014 made it clear they were not for Scots to be sovereign. Then of course Catalonia and no matter how the EU protests it was not a domestic issue….which btw never stopped them having an opinion on the Ukraine. No…I am one of the 16% of SNP members who would prefer an alternative to the EU….nevertheless I will always vote for Independence.

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  • 21/08/2018 at 03:46
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    Membership of the EU is an issue for an independent Scotland to determine, it should not be conflated with winning independence….

    Reply

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