29 November 2013

White Paper Strategies

Government publishes long boring report.  Plenty of trees mulched, nobody dead.  Not really the stuff lively media and public interest is made of, is it? Wonkish characters in their garrets may chortle in joy, but you can't usually expect many callooh callays from the general public. But is this week's White Paper different? 

Without slighting the Water and Sewerage Charges Exemption Scheme for Small Third Sector Organisations paper and its ilk, the White Paper's importance clearly exceeds your average government business. So does its ambition. The Plain People of Scotland can tuck themselves up cosy in their beds tonight, untroubled by the detail of much government policy. The White Paper, by contrast, has to make an impact. It arguments, and to some extent, its detail, has to "trickle down".  It needn't do so immediately. It needn't do so in full. But this ambition posed obvious tactical challenges. How's the trick best to be performed?

For example, should the Scottish Government roll out a thematic programme for independence, bit by bit, dealing with immigration and citizenship one week, the economy the next, and so on? As we've seen over the past few months, the UK government have published a range of subject-specific dossiers, in their Scotland Analysis papers.  

This approach has some advantages. It breaks down the bigness of all of the policy issues into more discrete, digestible segments. For those with visions of your average punter with a short attention span and wandering attention, this approach might seem attractive. It gives you a series of front-page splashes in the papers, a series of news bulletins, giving you the opportunity to set the agenda - not for a day or two - but for a number of weeks. What's more, multiple interventions minimises the events dear boy, events factor. Hurricane, flood, scandal - unforeseeable Iberian interventions - it's all too easy for unknown unknowns to intervene and bugger up your launch. Or at least, knock it off its preferred trajectory.

On the other hand, it means that your information and your arguments are diffusely distributed across a series of lengthy and inaccessible documents. The chances of much of the Scottish population picking up any of these reports and engaging with their arguments is limited.

Despite their ability to command the front pages on sympathetic newspapers, one also has to question the extent to which even the existence of these Scotland Analysis papers have really impinged on the public consciousness. You don't read documents which you don't know exist.  Even if, as Adam Tomkins argues, the UK government papers don't aspire to give you reasons to vote No, but aim to sculpt the debate in a manner which forces pro-independence campaigners to answer a series of often awkward questions. It seems to me that there's a good chance that they've achieved this ambition, sending the media gyroscope spinning, and making SNP politicians speak to the Unionist agenda, and some of the most uncomfortable aspects of the case for independence. It remains to be seen whether these advantages prove evanescent, or deeply entrenched.

In the alternative, should the Scottish Government - as it has - hand down its policy Bible from on high, weighty and singular? Seen in the light of experience, this approach has some clear benefits and disadvantages too. A subject-specific paper would never have achieved the attention which Wednesday's publication commanded in the media. Not just on the front pages of newspapers. It dominated and reshaped the all-important tea-time news broadcasts. For anyone keeping even a lazy eye on the news, the existence of the White Paper is unavoidable. 

It remains to be seen how many folk in the country will want to consult the Nationalist Testaments in making up their minds, but by expending all of their force on a single blow, the SNP have at least made it more likely that engaged but undecided voters know where to look. Condensing its argument into a single accessible text also facilitates this. Not everybody is an amateur archivist, keen to scour the internet to find a string of lengthy government documents.  One click, and you've got the SNP vision, kit and caboodle. We could have done without the Spanish fireship sailing up the Clyde. I'm sure the air was blue in the SNP press office when it came through on the wires, but such are the perils of letting everything ride on a single publication.  Coordinated Unionist mischief was sure-fire. 

But isn't it awfully long? Who is going to read all that? Certainly, the White Paper is a long document, but it's wrong to think people minded to give it a look will behave like the harried media commentator, on camera in half an hour, and keen to pretend they've read and digested the whole thing.  The White Paper isn't a sustained argument which has to be consumed whole to be understood at all.  It isn't a polemic essay, but a work of reference.

This is important, both for the investigative voter, but perhaps more importantly - for activists.  For all the talk of "ground campaigns", activists on the doorsteps must have something to say.  Yes, Yes Scotland is a broad church, and a vote for independence is not necessarily a wholesale endorsement of the SNP platform.  But in my experience, when folk have questions about independence, they frequently concern fairly commonplace issues, seeking reassurance about the continuity of programmes or policies which are important to them, or simply keen to know that thought has been given, for example, to the criteria governing who will be a citizen of this new state. This is intended as no slight to the seriousness with which these questions are asked. But few undecided characters I've discussed the referendum with demand a discourse on the theory of the state or a first principle-driven account of the nationalist movement's political economy.

I've never found the "gamechanger" theory on the White Paper terrifically convincing. The demand for sudden reversals of fortune tell us more about the impatience of the commentariat than they do about the slow drivers of social and political change.  Certainly, if Yes is to carry the day next September, something has to shift. Those nine points between Yes and No must narrow.

But this referendum is an unanticipated, early confrontation between Scottish nationalism and its ultimate ambition. Victory will be won only by slow degrees, if at all. It remains to be seen whether we have enough time, between now and next September, to work that change. But the Yes campaign must borrow its motto from Arthur Hugh Clough: "say not the struggle naught availeth ... for while the tired waves, vainly breaking seem here no painful inch to gain, far back through creeks and inlets making, came, silent, flooding in, the main."


  1. I would suggest the SG will employ more in thew 10 months to come as well as having presented their 'tome'. The next stage surely is to challenge BT to give us their vision?
    It will be interersting to see them try especially as they deal with YKIP and the Euro elections and the ramp up of campaigning for the 2015 GE?

    1. That'll be their hope, Fourfolksache. By laying it on the line to Better Together, the SNP are clearly hopeful that they can turn the tables on the incoherences and uncertainties of the Union position. From what I can gather about the progress of the Labour and Tory devolution commissions, there are rich pickings here for the Nats to gnaw at. Particularly if they can coax the press into prosecuting a similar line, and start asking more difficult questions of the defenders of continuing Union.

  2. To me it is clear choice. Either choose change with the potential for a better Scotland, or more of the same, Austerity, Privatisation, reduction in services, greater unemployment, more zero-hours contracts and so on. One of the huge benefits I see is that Scotland will repatriate some of the highly paid civil service positions from London. They will no longer spend their money in Harrods, and at the 'works picnic' (Glyndebourne according to Sir Humphrey)- instead the Fringe and Dunblane Hydro...

    1. Now there's a motto to win with: "Vote Yes to repatriate wealthy bureaucrats, fat on your tax pounds!"

  3. There was always a risk it could underwhelm and in discussions Ive had, that is certainly an initial reaction from some. The excitement, the build up, the emphasis on its importance gave the impression that it was going to represent a seismic shift in the conventional sense - what were going to be the big ticket items?! In turn, childcare was the only surprise and even then, it wasn't a huge surprise.

    But the expectation needed to happen to ensure that Scotland focused. That everyone in Scotland knew of its existence and it's volume. And for this reason, it has succeeded. It's all over the press, the TV, discussions in workplaces, at home, even beyond these borders and for good or for bad, that's important.

    For these reasons, it will be a slow burner. I already detect a change in tones. A change in dynamic - not in the way people might vote, but in the acceptance that, aye, theres a plan there. And crucially, we can weigh it up in one hand, and in the other... nothing.

    The focus is now starting to turn to the No campaign to ask why there is no such detail, no such proposal, no focus on what UK has to offer. So while everyone is off, debating the White Paper, consuming it, coming to terms with it's perfectly reasonable proposals and considering that it might not be that bad, Better Together are holding the Spanish PM up as a reason to vote No.

    It hasn't sealed the deal, but it's definitely changing the tone and content of discussions. As another BT used to say, it's good to talk. ;)

  4. A real, live Scotsman!
    I wonder if I might impose upon you to read this and perhaps adjudge its accuracy for me? I am resident in The Canadas, originally from Myanmar, by way of Colombia and France, and know very little about Scotland other than what I have gleaned from Mel Gibson films and sleeping with people who sound like Billy Connolly.
    Do not be perturbed by my Google 'Content Warning Page' - profanity is all of which I am guilty. I seemed to have accreted it a few years back when I thoroughly eviscerated and emasculated a bevy of peri-pubescent Yankee males on a 'Web Comic' blog. Those Neds in the Revolted Colonies are so fragile, ya know?
    Please forgive me my hyperbolic profanity. My word salads used to be clean and crisp but I was glassed while 'working' the Calton Bar in Glasgow and I just haven't been the same since.

    Also? Do you believe Hadrian's Wall was a good or bad idea?

    1. There is a live 'hyper-link on that first 'this' in the second sentence in the above comment. It appears, at least on my screen, to be indistinct.

    2. Hadrian's Wall was a scandal. The Antonine wall, by contrast, represented a sensitive border policy striking a fair balance between the tyrannical sway of Roman governance and your grumpy Scottish antecedents, you wanted to spear deer and murder hassises in the heather, according to their own laws and codes.

    3. If by 'the tyrannical sway of Roman governance' you mean 'the civilising influence of Pax Romana', you're right!
      The fay (and fey), blue-skinned antecedent Scotsman was deprived of his rightful civilising influence! Then again, we did get The Proclaimers, I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles), so something urbane seeped through The Wall.

      Varus and that unfortunate 'inconvenience' in the Tuetoburg Forest conspired to deprive the Germanic tribes of this eponymous civilising influence. And look what then became of them?
      And now us? We all must endure endless loops of Nena's Neunundneunzig Luftballons in our malls, bars and elevators!

      Try as I might, and I tied mightily, I could not determine what a 'hassises" is, was or ought to be.

      You're quite right about the Antonine Wall, but Hadrian's gets more tourists nowadays.


  5. According to todays papers Alex Salmond is writing to David Cameron to ask for some guarantees on the Barnett formulae. This appears to be a follow up, if you will, to Nicola Sturgeon giving our SoS a 'hell of a beating' on STV.

    That process, pointing out that there is no status quo, is perhaps the Yes sides weapon for the winter campaign. I think it might pay dividends to make it clear that the option is not between what we have today, it is between the much less that we will have soon under the existing governance package and what is 'on offer' in the White Paper.

    There are indeed 'rich pickings' to be had in analysing what is being said elsewhere. Quite what agreement was reached between Cameron and Rajoy? A quid pro quo of voting down each others independence minded regions / nations or simply sabre rattling over Gibralatar as a means of each stirring up unity of nationalistic purpose?



    According to my very rough calculations 333 Pine Trees were mulched to provide 40,000 hard copies of the White Paper. Is that too much to ask of our forests?

    1. From what I can gather, save for the Liberals, the Better Together parties seem likely to struggle to come up with any coherent "more devolution" package - at least according to what I've heard about how both processes are actually going. Refocussing on the implications of No is likely to find a bare cupboard.