Robin Mcalpine: Look differently – you might see how to win

Robin McApline, Common Weal Director, argues in his weekly column that the left and independence movement needs to rediscover how to connect with individuals on an emotional level to convince them

I DON’T think that many people would mistake me for someone who has any interest in matters New Age (what do you do with all the dreams your dreamcatcher catches?) much less someone with patience for consultancy-speak (and I think this position is MECE).

But actually 'ways of seeing' techniques are ones I find quite useful. Most situations can be seen or understood in at least two different ways, and the way you chose to see it will impact on how you approach the problem – and how successful you are at fixing it.

In political strategy this is generally known as 'framing', though similar approaches are now routine throughout many aspects of life. You might find it useful to apply some of them to the kinds of big issues that we're currently facing in Scottish politics.

I perhaps first became really concious of this approach many years ago when I did a two day course on negotiation. When I went into the training I thought they'd teach me how to 'beat' the person I was negotiating against.

“In the long term you can't win by humiliating or permanently seeking to defeat people, because if you win today, tomorrow they seek revenge. An excessively harsh negotiation now means you're going to face another excessively harsh negotiation in the future.”

It was very much a revelation to me when I was shown that it works better if I try to work out how I can give the other side as much of what they want as I reasonably can. It lazily became known as 'win win'.

But in fact it's really helpful. It made me realise that in the long term you can't win by humiliating or permanently seeking to defeat people, because if you win today, tomorrow they seek revenge. An excessively harsh negotiation now means you're going to face another excessively harsh negotiation in the future.

The quote that really stayed with me (though I'm paraphrasing from memory because I can't find a reference) was from miners' leader Mick McGahey who described negotiating as “give them the roughest ride of their lives, but make sure they have the bus fare home”.

It's not just in your negotiating opponent's interests to be able to go back to their constituency with enough to save face – in the long run its in your interests too.

I'll admit that it was an eye-opener for an, eh, 'energetic' young man who had been brought up in a confrontational west-of-Scotland-male culture.

Over the years I've used it quite a lot. For example, I know that I can be excessively single-minded, that this can make me impatient and that I have a short fuse. This can be a real drawback in my line of work so I've needed coping techniques.

Sometimes when I'm especially angry with someone and I'm starting to see them as some kind of stereotypical 'villain' I'll do the following. I imagine me being horrible to them. I imagine them going home to their partner or their children or their cat or whomever is their loved one – and I imagine them crying.

They stop seeming like a villain – in fact, it starts to make me feel like a bit of a villain. Generally, it really does make me pull back from being nasty.

“I've spoken to people in the SNP who feel instinctively that they're not quite connecting with ordinary voters in the way they were a couple of years ago and they're not entirely sure why.”

Right, so far, so self-help book. What does this mean for Scottish politics – and in particular the left and the independence movement? Let me give you two examples where I think we're getting the framing wrong – and why it would help if we could get it right.

First, let's pick domestic politics. I've spoken to people in the SNP who feel instinctively that they're not quite connecting with ordinary voters in the way they were a couple of years ago and they're not entirely sure why.

This is a common problem for governments. It's because for a whole host of reasons, governments are encouraged to see the world in front of them as a 'system of problems', a kind of technical challenge to which it is their job to find the solution.

That's not necessarily a bad thing – at Common Weal we regularly try to take a 'systems' approach. The problem comes when you think that everyone else should thank you for it.

Why? Because you're clever? Because you're important? Because a dozen other 'important' people are telling you how sage you are to take a systems approach?

This is precisely the problem the Democrats have got into in the US. For years they have been trying, effectively, to build themselves into the system. That they sold Hilary Clinton as 'most qualified' to run the system shows an acute version of the problem.

Why? Because systems don't vote. If you're lucky 'the system' will give you a campaign donation – but you won't see it at a polling station.

What you need to do is rethink the same problem but see it as a series of people and the lives they live. You may need to take a systems approach to solve the problems that real people face, but you can only understand success and failure in terms of its impact on individuals.

“Politicians often come to believe that the public will thank them for saving 'the system'. Trump shows that if you even give the appearance of caring about ordinary people's lives as they are lived, you will be rewarded.”

It's the Alastair Darling problem. He thinks it was a great success that when RBS told him they were going to run out of money that afternoon, he used lots of taxpayer money to save them. From the system perspective he was probably right.

Looking at it from the taxpayer perspective the question is how he let the bank get to within hours of collapse. After all, he was in charge of the regulatory system that was supposed to make sure that didn't happen.

Politicians often come to believe that the public will thank them for saving 'the system'. Trump shows that if you even give the appearance of caring about ordinary people's lives as they are lived, you will be rewarded.

So a note to the Scottish Government – your aim to reduce the system-wide attainment gaps in education are laudable. But since you never really talk about what this means for an actual person and their actual child, how it makes their life better, their child happier, don't be surprised if gratitude doesn't follow.

'Centerism' or 'the moderates' are ways of denoting a politics that thinks the plebs should be grateful when the system protects itself. And, electorally, it's dying on its arse. People should take note.

A second key example is how we think we can win the independence debate. For all sorts of reasons (not least bloody social media) we seem to have framed all constitutional debate as if it was a boxing match.

If only we could land that killer blow on Kezia/Ruth/David/whomever, then the public will realise we're right and they're wrong. So we endlessly, endlessly attack and complain and correct and hold to account and all of that.

Fine, some of this needs to be done. But pull the camera back for a wide shot. Who's watching your knockout blow? Are you sure your blow is as decisive as you think? Is there any chance that it looks a bit more like the two of you are rolling around in the mud, poking each other in the eye?

So frame it in another way. Rather than 'boxing Ruth', think of it as if its a jury trial, with the public being the jury. You're not trying to beat the other side, you're trying to persuade the jury. Its not a shouting match with unionists, its a conversation with the public.

“Rather than 'boxing Ruth', think of it as if its a jury trial, with the public being the jury. You're not trying to beat the other side, you're trying to persuade the jury. Its not a shouting match with unionists, its a conversation with the public.”

Now of course you need to take account of what your opponent is saying and you can't allow misinformation to go unchallenged. But how would you do it in a courtroom? Remember, hollering “you can't handle the truth” at the prosecution (and by extension the jury) does not win you trials.

The more effective approach is to listen to what your opponent says, take a second to think about it and think about the clearest, simplest, most sympathetic way you can challenge the claim made.

Then, take a breath, look up at the jury and calmly and assuredly say “OK, what you've just heard from the opposition is...” and try concisely and with minimum hostility to put their argument to bed and take the jury with you where you would like them to go instead.

This is especially important for independence supporters because to win, all the unionists need to do is turn off enough people so they don't even listen to the debate. In fact, that is pretty well a precise description of their entire post-Brexit strategy.

We need people to pause and engage and rethink. Eye-gouging is not well known as a means of making that happen.

Let me put that even more simply – the nastier the debate, the better it works for unionists. The more rational and emotionally positive the debate, the better it is for us.

There are lots and lots of examples of where we will benefit from thinking about options from more than one perspective. Telling no voters they were wrong in 2014 or telling them that they made the right choice for their families then but that may not be the right choice for them now.

“You know the old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. We can't afford to live in a land of nails. We'll never be able to hammer our way out.”

Telling the older generation that they've let their grandchildren down – or tell them that their grandchildren just want a chance to build a better future so they can make their grandparents as proud of them as they are of their grandparents.

Explaining that a Citizens' Basic Income is a necessary systems response to changing income distribution factors – or tell people how it could transform their lives. Influencing a journalist or a civil servant or a politician by thinking about how your day is going or by trying to picture how their day has been.

The left has been bad at this. The centrists used to be much better at it but they've got lost so far up themselves that it has stopped working. The right is all over the place. As Trump shows, the group who get it right first might well win.

The independence movement used to be much better at this (wish trees and all that). But we've got worse the fewer the tangible things we've had to keep us focussed.

You know the old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. We can't afford to live in a land of nails. We'll never be able to hammer our way out.

Let's try and look differently. You might be surprised by what you see.



Thu, 08/10/2017 - 21:39

The basis of opposition to independence is that it would cost much more than it is worth. In 2014 Salmond's strategy was to attack the premise that independence would cost anything at all. He'd force the rUK into a currency union against its will, and pay for everything else with oil. In March we learned that Sturgeon's strategy was to she didn't know or care about the cost side of the equation. She had outsourced that consideration to a SNP ex-MSP turned PR consultant, and did not wait for his response before deciding to push for a second referendum.

My take-away is that it really is true that the burden that independence will impose on the first and possibly the second generation of independent Scots is so great that the leaders of the independence movement want to keep it concealed.

I know Common Weal thinks that a group of amateur economists can produce PDFs that will put that issue to bed. But it isn't working. You are doing what think tanks do: you start with the conclusion (Independence is affordable!) and then shape the analysis and the data to fit the the conclusion.

So: how do you put the key unionist objections to bed?

I don't think you can.

Mike Fenwick

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 19:07

Hi Maurice ... (and sorry Robin, trying hard to follow your advice, but I may be failing) ....Maurice, sorry digression, I'll say Hi again, contrary to what you may believe I do read your posts (fail to agree more often that not, but that's life, huh) so I thought seeing you were around that I might raise a series of questions with you, questions that affect Scotland while it remains part of the UK.

I know you hold firmly to the belief that Scotland would be facing a disaster if it chose independence. I wonder, on my part, as I think you know, if it might be an even bigger disaster if it didn't achieve independence.

In truth, you and I could kick that can around all day, so to avoid that here are my questions for you? They centre on one small aspect of the UK (including Scotland) and Brexit,

1) The EU have asked (inter alia) that the UK agree to discussing the methodology to arrive at a figure to be paid as an exit bill, before moving onto wider, and particularly trade negotiations. Before you and I move on, are we agreed on that?

2) It has been speculatively reported and then denied, and then speculatively reported again, that the UK might, just might, end negotiations without agreeing to pay anything, just walk away. Do you think that will happen, an exit from the EU with nothing paid to do so?

3) Alternatively, various figures have been speculated on as to the amount that might be involved if that does not happen, ranging up to about £100bn. Can you tell me what you think the cost, if actually paid, will be, any ideas?

4) If like many (me included) you don't have any ideas, may I use a mid range figure of say £40bn to allow for this question. As you know, another can that has been frequently kicked down the road is the UK deficit, now the can has reached 2025, I believe. So question: Do you think the UK will add to the current deficit by borrowing that £40bn, or indeed the £bns involved in any amount that is agreed?

5) Alternatively, do you think the UK will ask the EU for time to pay, spread the cost, and accept the interest that might accrue, again affecting the current deficit?

6) Sorry, this is more a statement than a question, but I would be interested in any comments you may have. You know the UK decided to have aircraft carriers, and then found out it may have to borrow (and pay for) the planes needed, ooops .. bit of a problem, but for me it leads to a bigger problem, because the mid range above of £40bn is close to the entire annual defence budget for the UK. No planes for the carriers is one thing, but an increase in the deficit, and the loss of one year's defence budget maybe should concern us all, I just wonder if it concerns you at all?

Over to you. Cheers.


Thu, 08/10/2017 - 21:44

I'm sure Maurice can answer for himself but I'm not sure what you're getting at with those questions. Assuming the UK pays a one off £40bn payment to the EU (and this is completely different from an ongoing annual deficit), how much in % terms would it increase the UK deficit by (for one year) and how does this compare to Scotland's current deficit % ?


Thu, 08/10/2017 - 21:45

@ Mike Fenwick
If you want to hijack this page to talk about unrelated issues I cannot stop you, but I'm not going to join in.

Mike Fenwick

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 23:06

Hi Watty ... still so sure Maurice will answer for himself??

You are correct, I agree there is a need to address a Scottish deficit, believe me I genuinely couldn't agree more,there is a serious need to do so, but, and it is a big but, I am no less concerned with the UK's increasing deficit, aren't you? Seriously, aren't you?

What is perhaps surprising, or maybe it is only to be expected, is when Maurice suddenly exits stage left, and does so only when I ask him about UK deficits with Scotland still included.

Is it only the Scottish deficit that interests him, that would suggest an "independence inclined attitude" which is the primary cause of my surprise. It suggests that the UK deficit is of little importance to Maurice, only Scotland's. The UK deficit is to him simply a matter of no consequence. The UK has the sixth-largest government debt of advanced economies, and the longer the deficit is unresolved, the larger that will get. Should we not be talkng about UK deficits and debt? For Maurice it's tantamount to hijacking apparently? Weird, unless his true allegiance is to Scotland?

So, on point Watty: Is this the underlying and residual question for Scotland while remaining integral to the UK ... do you think Scotland's position, or that of the other nations in the UK is helped by the UK increasing its deficit, going deeper into the red, and for an ever extended time period? Any thoughts?

Does anyone, including those who believe we are better together, envisage an increasingly unhealthy UK financial position being of positive benefit to Scotland, or any part of the UK? Any response?

Perhaps the solutions to both Scotland's and the UK's deficits arise when we begin to see them and treat them as independent, requiring independent solutions.

Contextual solutions, developed over time. That is why the push back on the UK's deficit to 2025 is happening, isn't it? Kick it down the road a bit or Rome wasn't built etc etc.

Say for example, we ask whether Scotland would find a need for buying aircraft carriers (with or without attendant aircraft)? Do you think that is likely, Watty? Would Scotland order up aircraft carriers? What say you?

Could I ask you whether an independent Scotland would seek to maintain a nuclear weapons system? What say you, Watty?

Tangent Watty: From your questions of me, you seem to believe we are only looking at single period ... one year, that's it. Am I correct?

What if there is, as seems increasingly likely, a transition period with a bar on new trade deals elsewhere in the world? How long, Watty, do you think such a potential transition period would be, with wider geographical trade off limits? Only 12 months?

I don't know the timescale to achieve the import of cholorinated chickens, I don't know if or when they will come home to roost, do you honestly see that achieved in 12 months?

Watty, do you believe that it is certain that a multiplicity of trade deals will be achieved in 12 months, and all will be right with the world, seriously?

Over to you. Cheers!


Thu, 08/10/2017 - 23:50

I'm still here, Mike. But I'm not going to participate in your whataboutery designed to high jack the discussion.

Mike Fenwick

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 00:04

Hi Maurice: Proverbs 17:28.

Let's see if Watty is up for a serious discussion, shall we?

Scott Egner

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 10:35

Whataboutery because maurice can't give us the answers post-brexit of being part of the uk.
It's somehow irrelevant to ask about his alternative to indy and our vry future.
I'm wondering for example about my aviation related job when in 18 months we are out of open skies.

It'll be ok though according to maurice - We're British.

Mike Fenwick

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 11:08

Hi Scott ... Air service agreements are just one of 759, yes 759, (originally all EU related) agreements that the UK needs to renegotiate with over 168 countries, post Brexit.

Watty seems to believe that will only take 12 months, and have little effect on the UK economy, not even when UK airlines can't land in the USA?


Fri, 08/11/2017 - 14:04

Scott, Brexit is indeed irrelevant to the fundamental weaknesses of the case for independence.

Mike Fenwick

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 15:40

O wad some Power the giftie gie us ... To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, ... An' foolish notion.

How do others see the whole UK (including Scotland) post Brexit?

Maurice Obstfeld, the IMF’s economic counsellor said the UK’s growth forecast had been lowered based on its “tepid performance” so far this year, adding: “The ultimate impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom remains unclear.”

The Bank of England now believes that UK investment spending in 2020 will be 20% lower than expected in 2016, before the EU referendum.

The uncertainty created by Brexit is weighing on growth, Carney continued, citing how rising inflation has hurt consumer spending. (as in Mark Carney, Bank of England)

Carney says the ‘big picture’ is that Britain’s potential growth has moved down.

Deputy governor Ben Broadbent replies that it’s unrealistic to expect the UK economy to grow at its pre-crisis levels.

A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found the potential cost to the UK economy of Britain leaving the Single Market would be between £25bn and £36bn a year.


Fri, 08/11/2017 - 20:38

I counted at least 14 questions on various subjects in that reply. Are you familiar with the phrase 'Jaq-ing off' as, intentionally or not, this is exactly what you're doing. I'm surprised you never answered my very simple question before going off on a tangent, but maybe that was deliberate. Anyway, care to address my question and if you like we can stick to the subject, minus the Jaq-ing off that will require a pretty huge response, and get a discussion going?


Fri, 08/11/2017 - 20:39

Re the above post about air service agreements, I'd prefer you didn't post blatant lies about things I haven't even discussed thank you very much.

Mike Fenwick

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 21:32

Blatant lie, bit strong! Let's see, before we go further and whether an apology might be in order, shall we?

Try these extracts:

Trading in the absence of a formal agreement
232.Leaving the EU without a bilateral UK-EU air services agreement in place would be, in the words of BATA, a “’clean break’ in aviation terms”.335 Ms Dekkers noted that aviation services were “not covered by the WTO”, so there was no “fall-back option”.336 Without a bilateral air services agreement in place by 2019, UK airlines would no longer have the right to fly to and from EU Member States under existing Single Market rules, or to fly to third countries, such as the US, under the terms of the EU’s Open Skies agreements. UK airlines would not be able to offer services between two EU Member States without flying via UK airspace, or to serve domestic routes within EU Member States. UK airlines would no longer be designated as ‘Community carriers’.

233.BATA said the UK would, in such circumstances, have to fall back on bilateral air services agreements (which predate the creation of the Single Market) with individual Member States. It was “questionable whether these old agreements would still be valid”, given that they were agreed before the EU extended its competence on aviation matters. They would also be “so out-dated” that they simply would “not be fit for purpose”.337 Ryanair noted that, in the case of Spain, there was “potentially no right to fly as the relevant bilateral agreement has been repealed”.338

IATA highlighted the importance of the aviation sector to the UK’s economy, noting that it contributed £55 billion to UK GDP in 2015 and supported 945,000 jobs in the UK. They said the average employee generated £84,000 in GVA annually, which was “over 60% higher than the whole economy average in the UK”.281

From here:

Was I lying, or simply, once again, showing another example of the effects of Brexit on the UK (including Scotland) economy.

A Scot in Canada

Sat, 08/12/2017 - 22:06

By positing that the Union is now a Ponzi scheme that robs Peter - the citizens - and gives to Paul - the ancient regime and their loyal pensioners.

There is no mechanism now available on the political spectrum that has the power to moderate this unhealthy and corrupt monopoly. All Union mainstream parties are actively culling the young and infirm to balance the books. This is now the state of affairs in the United Kingdom. A nation with no allies, only obligations. With only an unstable crackpot in the White House as a friend in need.

UK Plc must be broken up. For the good of us all.

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