What Indyref1, Brexit and Trump taught us

Cat on Table
Cat on Table.
To some extent, the last independence referendum was one of the first big political events where social media played a bigger role than mainstream media. If it had happened ten years earlier, it’s likely Yes would never have risen above 35% because pro-independence voices would have been suppressed by all TV channels and newspapers. On the other hand, Yes didn’t win, we only managed to do much better than anybody had expected in advance.

Since then, there have been a few cases where the expected side didn’t win, most notably the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election.

The media are what they are, so if we assume that Alex Salmond is right and the next Scottish independence referendum will take place in 2018, we need to learn from those events quickly to figure out how to win.

Firstly, we need to learn that one size doesn’t fit all. In the Brexit referendum, it was immensely useful for the Leave campaign to have two big campaign organisations: The official one – Vote Leave – which concentrated on respectable, intellectual arguments about free trade with the world and making Westminster sovereign again, and the unofficial one – Leave.EU – which focused on immigration. The Leave campaign needed both organisations to attract different groups of voters.

In the same way, in Indyref2 we cannot win over former Yes–Leave voters with a campaign that is concentrating on No–Remain voters, so we need at least two campaigns. It might also be good with a campaign organisation focusing on voters over 55 (older people were key to both Leave’s and Trump’s victories, so they definitely can be reached by an insurgent campaign).

Of course we had many different organisations last time, too, but in my opinion the main difference was in their audience, not in their messages. No–Remain voters will need completely different arguments from Yes–Leave voters. I think it was Stewart Kirkpatrick who suggested at the Scottish Independence Convention earlier this month to give voters a sweetie-shop, a panoply of policy options.

Secondly, having different campaign groups isn’t enough, we also need to ensure they reach the right voters. On social media it won’t be too hard, because people are more likely to follow people and groups they agree with, but untargeted door-chapping is a waste of time. As a Dane, I should be talking to voters from Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands, and the English Scots for Yes should be given lists of voters born in England to talk to. As far as I’m concerned, telling each campaign group where their voters are should be one of the main tasks for Yes Scotland II.

Thirdly, we need to think about dead cats. Spin doctors have for a while been good at throwing them on the table:

Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.

‘That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.’

Donald Trump effectively perfected the Twitter equivalent, tweeting something on a daily basis that would dominate the headlines, even if most people would be outraged.

I think Trump’s campaigning style was too outrageous for most Scots, but I we need to learn to set the agenda and not end up meekly answering the No side’s silly questions every day.

Finally, we need to talk about fake news. Even if we try to avoid it, other people might decide to “help” us in this way, and we’re likely to face a lot of fake news stories. I’m not entirely sure what we should do in this regard, but we should be prepared for it, for instance by having a few dead cats up our sleeve that we can deploy when we need them.

I’m sure there are many more things we can learn from the last three years, but the next independence referendum might start soon, so we need to get ready.

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