Robin McAlpine: Are you ready for 'Sexy Brexit'? We need to be

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says Yes campaigners must pay close attention to how unionists are trying to frame ScotRef vs Brexit

IF WE listen carefully to the noises coming out of the pro-UK camp just now, there is reason to believe that independence campaigners may have to recalibrate our thinking a little.

In particular, when I first heard the name 'New Direction' mentioned as a possible title for the No campaign, I became aware that some of my expectations might not be quite right.

I take as a starting point that in Scotland, Brexit is little loved – even if it isn't hated as much as some initially believed. And certainly there seems to me a pretty strong sense that in Scotland Brexit looks particularly chaotic.

You simply can't make Brexit disappear – which leaves you with the sole option of trying to own it as a positive.

I'd therefore been slightly assuming that the No campaign would try and massage Brexit out of the picture as much as they thought they could get away with.

Mostly I was expecting a kind of gentle, slightly backwards-looking tone to the No campaign – paternal, reassuring, safe, sensible. I expected it to drift towards the kind of comforting haze of 'bunting and cupcakes and orderly queuing' kind of Britishness while trying hard to drag it away from the 'inefficient lightbulbs, dodgy foreigners and hanging people by the neck until dead' stuff that seems to be brewing in parts of England.

That campaign would have been rather like Better Together, which frankly was a bit British Empire 1.0. However, you wouldn't call that campaign 'New Direction'. (Not that I'm convinced you'd want to call ANY campaign New Direction.)

That title hints strongly towards a campaign much more heavily based around British Empire 2.0. My initial reaction was a bit of surprise given that I think it's a fairly hard sell in Scotland – at least from where we are now.

But there are two bases on which this does make sense. I'm assuming there's been focus group work and two things have come out. First, you simply can't make Brexit disappear – which leaves you with the sole option of trying to own it as a positive.

Many of you will think this sounds silly, but what option does the No campaign have? No-one now thinks we're not leaving the EU, so this is precisely what they have to sell.

That won't be easy for a Scottish audience, but it's not impossible. Somehow you have to take out the 'Boris Johnson' factor (the very southern Englishness of Empire 2.0) and probably tone down the rank amorality (a new direction in which all our allies are vicious dictators seems another hard sell to me).

Angry immigration-inflected Brexit is a problem as well. But May has been shrewd in appearing to be planning to enshrine all the social and environmental protections of the EU in national law (for a few years at least). Pretending Brexit isn't anti-progressive is crucial.

It's still a far from easy job, not least of which is because the very idea of Britain having anything that looks like an 'empire' in the 21st century is just silly. But there looks to be money going into this – the 'These Islands' think tank will presumably be looking hard at how to feed the Scots Brexit Britain.

The second reason it makes some sense is that I suspect they've discovered that in Scotland there remains a strong strand of optimism. I think 'cling to what you have' is a declining sales pitch. Whatever else New Direction is, it appears to be a recognition that the union has to seem dynamic.

So can it work? I described this to someone this week and they looked slightly incredulous and asked 'what, they think they can manufacture Sexy Brexit?'.

If they can get their underpinning dog-whistle fear-and-smear campaign to work and people are worried into being afraid of independence, they may only need to 'sex up' Brexit enough to get by.

Many of you will think this sounds silly, but what option does the No campaign have? No-one now thinks we're not leaving the EU, so this is precisely what they have to sell.

And I'd be inclined to take some care in not immediately dismissing this as a losing strategy. If they can get their underpinning dog-whistle fear-and-smear campaign to work and people are worried into being afraid of independence, they may only need to 'sex up' Brexit enough to get by.

This has a number of potential consequences for the Yes campaign. I've always argued that a 'safety first' pro-independence campaign was a mistake for reasons I've elaborated on at some length.

But that would probably be an even worse strategy if we have to go against a campaign that is trying to present a dynamic, change-based story. People are simply not voting for stasis these days.

We need to understand how the framing of this referendum is shaping up. Last time round it was 'continuity or disruption'. This time round it is very much 'two futures' without a status quo. It is crucial that we make our future better than theirs.

I'm an awful long way short of being convinced that Sexy Brexit can win in Scotland. But it would be a catastrophe if we tried to fight it with a tepid, mundane vision based on prioritising business interests.

You may have noticed that pro-union commentators are always telling us that our case next time must be realistic, pessimistic even. You might be a little suspicious of the enthusiasm with which they offer their wise counsel.

You'd be right to be. All the recent evidence suggests that in a head-to-head contest in which one side offers a new and different future and the other offers a dull kind of continuity, continuity isn't winning.

Many of you will have laughed at the Theresa May 'a united Britain is an unstoppable force' stuff. Unfortunately, you probably also laughed at 'take back control' and 'make America great again'. Even in France where they thought they'd found their perfect liberal centrist straight man in Emmanuel Macron, suddenly he's got a little known leftist come from nowhere to be a close challenger.

I'm an awful long way short of being convinced that Sexy Brexit can win in Scotland. But it would be a catastrophe if we tried to fight it with a tepid, mundane vision based on prioritising business interests.

So, staying firmly within the bounds of possible and credible, our case must be exciting and dynamic as well.

If we allow this to become a rerun of the old campaign, we've made a very big mistake.

If we can manage it, a second and important aspect of a Sexy Brexit strategy needs to be addressed; it's going to be pretty difficult for some parts of the No coalition to swallow. The 'liberal internationalist' strand of anti-independence sentiment is bound to feel uncomfortable.

It doesn't matter how much the language is manicured, a future based on arms sales to some of the world's worst people is not the sort of thing I can imagine Kezia Dugdale celebrating with enthusiasm. To the left of Kezia, it becomes harder and harder to see how this coalition holds together.

The straight face Ruth Davidson can keep while ignoring questions about her party's appalling 'rape clause' rather confirms my suspicion that Ruth would sell whatever she's told to sell. But this just makes the No campaign more and more Tory.

Which create a substantial opportunity for the Yes campaign. We need to get over some past enmities and start to see many people in the Labour Party in Scotland as allies. If unionism becomes a less and less comfortable place for them to be, we need to make ourselves more and more welcoming.

My experience has been that everyone is seeing the next independence campaign as if it will be a re-run of the last one. For example, there's an assumption that once again we'll be pinned to an interviewer's chair answering an endless stream of questions for a year.

We must relentlessly force No campaigners to own every mistake and failure of Brexit, of Tory government in London. We need to make sure that the 'two futures' frame is the one we use.

But we'll be able to answer those questions much better than last time while the No side now has a world of questions to answer for itself. If we allow this to become a rerun of the old campaign, we've made a very big mistake.

We must relentlessly force No campaigners to own every mistake and failure of Brexit, of Tory government in London. We need to make sure that the 'two futures' frame is the one we use. And we need to make their future look nasty and risky, ours hopeful and exciting.

And we need to do everything to polarise their own campaign. The more Tory it becomes, the better for us. The easier it is for Labour people to jump to our side, the faster we'll make progress.

Sexy Brexit is not what many of the No campaigners wanted to be selling. But it's what they've got and they're going to have to make the most of it. But we can absolutely make the most of it as well – if we're clever.

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.

Comments

MauriceBishop

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 15:21

Brexit actually has little to do with Scottish independence. It is only brought up by separatists who are trying to find cover for their inability to satisfactorily explain the basics of the economics of post-independence Scotland.

The biggest issue is the currency. Denmark, of a similar size and situation to Scotland, needs 57 billion pounds for their central bank. At most Scotland would leave the UK with 15 billion. Brexit does not explain how the difference would be made up. And if anyone things that 'Europe" will ride to the rescue: Scotland cannot join the Euro until it first goes through all the pain and expense of first establishing its own currency.

At present Scotland has a large structural deficit. Last year the FM explained that it is due to the fact that although Scotland generates the same tax revenue per head as England, services cost much more to provide here because of the vast landmass and the sparse population. Brexit does not explain how the Scottish government will fill the gap when the fiscal transfers from the rUK stop. And if anyone things that 'Europe" will ride to the rescue: in reality, if iScotland joins either the EFTA or the EU it will have to be a net contributor to the central budget, thus making the situation even worse.

3) Finance is our largest private sector employer. If Scotland does not have its own, properly-funded central bank and currency, it cannot provide a lender of last resort facility. We know that in 2014 finance corporations were preparing to flee in case of a Yes vote. See the notes of the BoE Financial Policy Committee from 26/9/2014. How many private sector jobs will be put at risk this time around, and how do the separatists propose to deal with the damage? Brexit does not provide the answer.

Justin Kenrick

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 18:55

Great article, but if Maurice Bishop's response is anything to go by, it looks as if you may be crediting the No campaign with more ability to kick their addiction to dwelling on the negative than they are capable of.

Your earlier piece (replacing Scotland with the Netherlands to show how nonsensical the way GERs and the No economic analysis is spun to make Scotland look like a basket case) is a very good response to such attempts to rerun the 2014 No campaign that lost votes by the bucketful, even if it was able to cross the line just ahead of Yes having started with such a lead: https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10672/robin-mcalpine-be-careful-it...

MauriceBishop

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 20:40

"GERS is the authoritative publication on Scotland's public finances"
- Independence White Paper, page 67

Justin Kenrick

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 22:02

Comment below

Justin Kenrick

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 22:01

Yes indeed that is what the
White Paper said, but we all
- Unionist and Independence
supporters alike - are no
longer back in 2013-14. Things
have moved on and we
can all see GERS for what
they really are:

This is a Unionist view of
GERS:

"“[GERS] can’t tell us what
an independent Scotland’s
finances would look like. .
. . What the GERS figures
do tell us is, historically,
how do Scotland’s revenue
and expenditure figures
look as an integral part
of the UK . . . Nobody
suggests that the GERS
figures show what a future
independent Scotland
would look like.” - Kevin Hague.

This is an independence
supporting view of GERS:

"And let's cut to the chase
– if France or Germany or
Belgium or Italy were to
have their fiscal deficits
calculated through the
GERS methodology, their
deficits would spiral too.
Because GERS isn't a
calculation designed to
measure how a part of
the UK would fare as an
independent country. It
is a calculation designed
to show how how a
geographical area would
fare if it was a region
under the control of the
UK. That's quite a
different thing." - Robin McAlpine

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10672/robin-mcalpine-be-careful-it...

MauriceBishop

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 22:20

"Things have moved on", you say. However: the methodology behind GERS has not changed. The only thing that is different is that you now find it inconvenient and so you need to explain it away. And good luck with that, given how transparent your motives are.

Nelson

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 08:52

Arguing about leaving a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic union of countries with a free market and free movement in order to get self determination, versus leaving a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic union of countries with a free market and free movement in order to get self determination, really isn't inspiring me at all.

Nelson

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 09:07

The argument is almost as uninspiring as internet dweebs saying that GERS is fine when it suits their agenda, then rubbishing it when it doesn't. The alternative is just making numbers up like the Leave and Remain campaigns did.

Justin Kenrick

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 16:29

being positive certainly suits my agenda, including being positive about what GERS is and what it isn't, my agenda being to create a positive inclusive society that cares, as I'm sure yours is too

RadioJammor

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 09:10

Oh dear, Maurice may have received the memo but hasn't read it or understood it properly about the pertinence of GERS to an Indy Scotland. I think it best to let him flail away with his outdated argument and ignore him.

RadioJammor

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 10:12

If the Unionist campaign is going to try and spin Brexit as a positive as you suggest, then the response is simple - and I'm already doing this on Twitter, because this should have framed part of the argument already.

Brexit is fundamental to why the referendum is going to go ahead (as I'm sure it will).

There is plenty of ammunition out there to demonstrate what a disaster Brexit is going to be for the UK, whether gradually or in great lumps, or a combination of such.

It is clear that the UK is not going to leave the EU with a deal that can possibly be better than it would have by remaining (common sense, really). It is also clear that there will not be a trade deal in place before the UK leaves the EU in just under two years time.

The UK Government's timetable and bargaining position for Brexit was shredded by the EU within days of Brexit being triggered.

Unionists can bang on about the numbers of Scots who voted "Leave", but they assume (or would have you assume) that this number is going to remain solid. People who voted "Leave" should already be realising that the case for Brexit and the face the UK has been putting on negotiations with the EU, are utter shams.

I say that it is already likely that the number of Scots who would have voted "Leave" now is probably already down, and as Brexit progresses, I believe it will reduce further, as Brexit starts to bite, companies leave for other European destinations and the public starts to see how much worse off the UK is going to be as a consequence.

Then there is who the UK will have to trade with (and how) in order to try and mitigate the negative effects.

Will the UK become the 51st State of the USA? The idea has been mooted before, prior to the UK joining the EEC (as was).

This is without considering the likelihood of a Tory Government taking at least some advantage of the situation and imposing changes to the likes of human rights, worker rights, or as suggested here, the ability of Scotland to leave the UK, should it at any time desire to do so.

I see it as likely that there will be a significant number of people changing their mind about the EU and will be happy to see Scotland reintegrate, thereby losing this as a potential objection to Scottish independence.

So if the UK wants to spin Brexit as a positive for the referendum debate in particular, let it try. Not only will they have most Indy Scotland supporters to contend with but other UK remainers too.

Again, I say we should already be pointing out how bad Brexit is likely to be. It is not merely the fact that Scots voted remain and are being taken out of the EU that we should concentrate on.

For example, the UK Government failed to have any regard for Scotland's position in negotiations with the EU. Indeed, it seems the EU is sticking-up for Scotland instead.

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10676/european-parliament-recognis...

MauriceBishop

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 14:48

"outdated argument"

In 2013 the separatists all believed "GERS is the authoritative publication on Scotland's public finances" (Independence White Paper, page 67).

Now, however, they've all "gotten a memo" that gives them soundbites to use to waive away GERS, because although it has not changed, it has become, shall we way, inconvenient.

And because you operate solely inside your bubble, you think that is the end of it.

Meanwhile, there are something like 3.6 million Scottish voters who you also have to convince with this weak, self-serving argument that you cling to.

Good luck with that.

MauriceBishop

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 14:51

"I say we should already be pointing out how bad Brexit is likely to be."

Which does nothing to make the case for independence. Whinging about Brexit doesn't explain how the massive challenges of financing independent Scotland are going to be met, or how independence could be achieved without massive disruption to the economy and huge new burdens being placed on the private sector.

inverschnecky

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 15:46

Maurice ==
http://www.thetron.scot/gchq-boasts-of-using-false-flag-operations-to-ma...

Don't waste yer time will the trolls folks.

Unless you enjoy it.......

MauriceBishop

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 15:55

The sound you hear is inverschnecky scraping the bottom of a barrel because he/she knows that the economic case for independence does not exist - so therefore the separatists have to pretend that their emotional BS is paramount.

Justin Kenrick

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 20:55

Thanks inverschneky!

Sceptical Scot

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 19:34

I don't think this debate will advance until the Growth Commission reports, till then those in favour of indy are hoisted by their own petard....it is risible to go to the country waving Gers from the rooftops as proof an iscotland will be the 10th richest in the world, then a mere 2 years later break sweat trying to discredit what you previously treated as gospel.

When does the Growth Commission publish? Anyone know?

AGeeJ

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 14:26

MauriceBishop, not all separatists thought as you stated. This one and many I was in contact with did not think GERS were the authoritative figures.
I, and others, view them as inadequate but the best we have. They are of no use to project an independent country's finances (as stated by others on both sides).

You seem wedded to the union. Perhaps you can tell me why it was such a great idea for Westminster to cut off funding to the turbine development in the North of Scotland and also cutting wind turbine grants? An economic rationale please.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.