19 June 2014

Vote No Thanks

"Do you fancy a third slice of cheesecake?" "Another dram for the road?" "Care to contribute a penny or two to our donkey sanctuary?"  

What unites these three statements? Whether you are waylaid by a high street chugger, stuffed after having dinner at a friendly house, or fending off a barman keen to send you home steaming, now would be an inappropriate moment to wheel out your Reverend Ian Paisley impersonation. Baying "no, no, no" or "never, never, never" in response would be bad form, excessive, impolite. Much better to winkle your face into an apologetic smile, and demur with a gentle, "no thanks." The proposition does not disgust or offend you. You appreciate the thought behind it. In another circumstance, you might accept.  But, no. Not today, thank you.

Compare and contrast. "Would you like me to drive this rusty spike through your abdomen?" "Shall we take our summer holidays in Hull this year?" "Can I tempt you with this spare ticket to see Chris de Burgh?" Here, a shriek of dissent is not merely polite, but an indicator of elementary good sense. The proposition is ghastly, terrifying. Now is your Ian Paisley moment. 

One of the curiosities of the No campaign's initial "Better Together" branding was that it sought to answer the inherent positivity of a Yes campaign with an alternative positive proposition. It didn't seek to persuade you only that you should vote No in September's referendum, but of the wider claim that we are "better together" as part of the United Kingdom. This always struck me as something of a hostage to fortune. To contend that you are better together leads you almost immediately to the tricky question: better how? Better in what ways? And this is particularly problematic, when the three key political parties which make up your campaign don't even agree between themselves about how and why we're "better together."

The slogan isn't a diehard patriotic message, a call to British nationalists across Scotland that their country needed them, but an expression of the sort of instrumental unionism which used to be the bread and butter of Labour's defence of the Union. The problem with this sloganising is that it shifts the debate onto the terrain where the Yes campaign is most comfortable, where we want the discussion of independence to be. Are we really better off? Let's consider recent policy outcomes. Let's talk about how the United Kingdom is managed and run, and by whom. These arguments were always bound to form part of the case for independence. It was a bit more unexpected, however, to see their logic reflected in the No campaign's choice of name.

With that in mind, I find Better Together's recent "No Thanks" rebranding, and its choice of message, interesting. Undoubtedly an unspontaneous and considered innovation, the shift in the campaign's dominant message is presumably underwritten by all the usual marketing bells and whistles of polling and focus group work. Which brings us back to the cheesecake, the whisky, and the ailing donkeys. There's an implicit recognition of the attractions of independence in the new catchphrase. It doesn't depict full self-government as a bleak horror, or an idea to recoil from in disgust, or a self-evidently ridiculous notion which no right-thinking soul could for a moment countenance supporting. It has none of the denunciation and hell-fire of the ultra-unionist, Presbyterian preacher. Just an apologetic - perhaps even slightly regretful - No thanks to independence.

This shift of tone reflects the discussions you hear out and about in the country. Some folk reflexively reject independence as an absurdity, like my Old Soldier.  A scorched earth strategy might appeal to bilious old corporals, but if the conversations I overhear and engage in are anything to go by, they are unlikely to win folk over who find the concept of Scottish independence less existentially troubling. Most people I encounter seem willing to give the concept of independence a fair wind and remain, on some level, open to persuasion. Their unionism is provisional, not dyed in the wool. The "I" word doesn't cause their capillaries to flush with rage or credulity.

Alex Massie has been particularly good on the ambivalences of sentiment many folk will feel in this campaign. I've had conversations with a fair few folk who find the idea of independence appealing on some level, but who intend to vote against it. At least this time around. I chip away at them, but a recognition of these ambivalences of sentiment can also help to explain some of this campaign's stranger permutations.

Elements of the English political class and some parts of the press are increasingly desperate to find - and failing which, to invent - a significant anti-English dimension to the argument for independence. But there is nothing inherently incompatible with a residual anti-Englishness and enthusiastic support for the Union. I had a bizarre encounter with this kind of thinking, when I met the Old Soldier in a Glasgow pub. Passionately concerned not to make my Liverpudlian companion "a foreigner," he nevertheless punctuated his anti-Nationalist diatribes with the suspicious demand, "Are you English? Are you English?" The quotation didn't make the final cut, but in another setting, I recently heard a No voter explain to his pal that he "hated the English as much as the rest of us," defensively. I was itching to butt in. I courageously kept mum. But I doubt you meet many open-hearted anglophiles in the ranks of the SDL either. 

The interest of Better Together new slogan, for me, is that it implicitly recognises the attractions of independence. Jettisoning, or at least backgrounding, their attempt to persuade us that we're better together, the new motto recalls the closing speech of the defence lawyer, who suspects that his client is guilty, but who invokes the burden of proof to demand an acquittal. Sure, the character in the dock looks shifty, isn't entirely trustworthy, and you probably don't much like him, but the prosecution haven't proven their case. I know you want to send this guy down. I know you wont enjoy setting my client free. But look, members of the jury, the evidence just doesn't stack up. There are too many holes in the case. You can't take a decision this big with all of these questions outstanding. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is reasonable doubt.

Vote No. Vote No thanks. 

16 comments :

  1. "No Thanks" - it's what you say to a doorstepper when you really aren't interested and also don't want to get into some nonsense conversation about it. It's all part of the drive to make the whole thing seem stressful (cybernats) and the project of one man (Salmon).

    "Hi, can I talk to you about the all the great possibilities handed to us by independence?"

    No thanks. Thankyou but no. Slides door closed [click]. *shuffles back to Great British Whatever*.

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  2. The problem with it is that it is very easy to turn on its head. (I happen to think it is a terrible slogan)

    Vote Yes. No thanks to billions for HS2.
    Vote Yes. No thanks to Trident on the Clyde.
    Vote Yes. No thanks to hungry weans.
    Vote Yes. No thanks to food banks.
    Etc....

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    Replies
    1. True, but the campaign is aimed at the demographic that really has had it up to here with those people who are always banging on about those things. The demographic that isn't about to get dragged into a discussion about that tedious stuff. Life's too short. No thanks.

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    2. Yeah, but where does that end, Commentor? "Fancy popping down to the polling station before 10pm to say No to separation?" "Er, no thanks."

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    3. It's not an apathetic No Thanks. It's rejection while avoiding the investment in a tiring argument with a political bore.

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    4. As a non-old-Labour-socialist yes voter, I could be projecting here...

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    5. I think you're projecting. :-)

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    6. Nah. I think that is the attitude of many No voters (against, not willing to debate it), and that's one thing that 'No Thanks' is aimed at.

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    7. But what is the point of convincing people who are already convinced? It is the weak No vote who are willing to debate who they need to hold onto and even more the undecided they need to reach, not those who won't change their vote no matter what. I don't think you are quite getting what a campaign slogan is supposed to do.

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  3. I'm unsure whether this will turn out to be a good slogan, but I do find it intriguing that Better Together/Project Fear/No Thanks/Conservative Central Office are following the Quebec 1995 template so religiously. Was the 'Non merci' campaign in Quebec really such a success? They threw away a handsome early lead and ended up with a result that was effectively a coin-toss.

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  4. LPW: 'The interest of Better Together new slogan, for me, is that it implicitly recognises the attractions of independence.'

    But does It? I was actually reminded of the anti-nuclear slogan 'Nuclear Power?: No Thanks' which did not conjure up for me any delightful visions of reactors.

    Oh guitar cases with 'Nein Danke' slogans! Were we ever so young?

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  5. Does a campaign that thinks it's winning change its branding and slogon this close to the end?

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    1. At the least it is a pretty blatant admission that their previous slogan wasn't winning votes.

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  6. LPW I'd like to say Big Thanks for your articles,your gift of writing,to the educated and uneducated like me is of great help,to this debate.I do need a Scots,Oxford dictionary at hand as my only expense,a donation on the way.

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