Sometimes, in this game, it’s tempting to over-complicate things. The lesson of Talleyrand’s death – What did he mean by that? – has been all too well absorbed. And so we search for hidden meanings and a deeper truth whenever a politician says something. The real story always lurks beneath the surface, nothing should be taken at face value and everyone is always thinking three moves ahead.
It’s an appealing thought right enough. The trouble is it’s also often nonsense. Sometimes even politicians just mean what they say.
Nicola Sturgeon’s visit to London yesterday offered a case in point. The First Minister insisted, as she has always insisted, that she wants the UK to remain a member of the European Union. But that did not mean she had to embrace every aspect of the Remain campaign, far less endorse its wilder claims of a pestilential future if voters are deluded enough to vote to Leave.
This, it might be noted, is a position of crushing banality. Broad agreement on a given subject need not demand narrower agreement on the detail of every aspect of a given argument. True, it can suit politicians to pretend otherwise and the SNP know this fine well. Few campaigns in recent memory have been more dishonest than the SNP-sponsored suggestion that because the Labour and Conservative parties agreed to campaign together to preserve the United Kingdom they must, ipso facto, agree on everything else and, functionally, be the same party. Still, dishonest as it was there’s little doubting the effectiveness of this argument. It played a part, though only a part, in the defenestration of Scottish Labour.
But no matter how much the SNP cried that the Scottish people will ‘never forgive’ Labour for campaigning with the hated Tories under the Better Together banner the reality was rather more prosaic: Yes voters had no reason to forgive a Unionist party for being a Unionist party. That would still have been the case even if Labour had run its own pro-Union campaign.
Nevertheless, Sturgeon’s complaints about so-called Project Fear II naturally demanded that motive-diviners explore her real meaning. Why, doesn’t she secretly want Britain to Leave thinking that this might then swing opinion in Scotland towards independence – assuming, as is likely, that Scotland heartily endorses Remain – and thereby be the material change in circumstance deemed sufficient to justify another tilt at independence?
Well, yes, there is that possibility. Or, rather, even an outcome Sturgeon does not desire has its upside. But that does not mean she wants that outcome. We have been here before: in last year’s general election, Sturgeon may not have told the French Ambassador that she wanted David Cameron to defeat Ed Miliband but she is too intelligent not to have appreciated the manner in which such an unfortunate outcome could still be useful. Even so, it does not mean this was the outcome she wanted.
And so the simplest thing to think about Nicola Sturgeon’s attitude towards the EU is that she means what she says and she would like the UK to remain a part of it. She is not a left-wing super-sovereigntist in the manner of, say, Jim Sillars, the party’s former deputy leader. It reminds me of the time when clever-clever types confidently suggested the SNP didn’t really want independence, just the appearance of independence. A point of view, certainly, but one that requires one to carefully avoid a compelling weight of evidence to the contrary.
Nevertheless, Sturgeon’s complaints about the negativity of the Remain campaign merit some scepticism and not just because negative campaigning works. For all that the SNP’s campaign for Yes was presented with heroic and, for some, uplifting, optimism it was still a campaign founded upon a negative: Britain was irretrievably broken and we’d be better off out of it. Not just in general terms but in specifics too: the only way to save the NHS from its inevitable privatisation was to vote Yes. The alternative to the sunlit uplands of independence was a hateful Tory dystopia. And so on and so on.
But, awkwardly, many of the financial claims made by Better Together have – at least for now and for the foreseeable future – been vindicated rather more fully than the fanciful promises of a unicorn-based future offered by the Yes campaign. Sometimes negativity isn’t just effective, it can be essential too. There is nothing wrong with playing on the fear of loss aversion.
Granted, Better Together could have done more to offer a brighter picture of Britain as it really is (rather than as the Yes campaign caricatured it) but reinventing Britain was never likely to be as thrillingly attractive as the promise of a new and fresh start. Moreover, though such a campaign would have made stalwart No voters feel better about themselves and their choice (a useful goal, admittedly) but it was not what the small, undecided, middle was interested in hearing. They wanted ‘facts’ in an environment where ‘facts’ were rare and, even when found, invariably contentious.
As then, so now. Britain could – would – of course manage fine outside the EU just as Scotland could have managed outside the UK. That doesn’t mean either scenario is necessarily preferable, at least in economic terms, to the status quo. ‘Fine’ and ‘not as well’ are different things.
So of course much of the Remain campaign is infantile, hysterical and patronising. But then much of the Leave campaign is all of that – with knobs on – too. It is a campaign offering a choice between an exaggerated nightmare and an implausible, perhaps even impossible, dream. Well, what else did you expect?
But because very few people – and her we encounter a major difference between the Scottish and EU referendums – have a deep, emotional, attachment to the european project it stands to reason that appeals to the nobility of that project are unlikely to impress many voters. And those people are voting to Remain anyway. Hence the urgent need to frighten those voters into voting to stay.
How else could it be? Leave offers a simple solution to everything; Remain is in the business of saying actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. You can see why one campaign has an easy bumper-sticker message and the other does not. In broad and general terms, one appeals to instinct, the other to reason. That in turn means that while one campaign must focus on what we could gain it makes much more sense for the other to concentrate on what we might lose. And people are hard-wired, in general, to fear loss more than they love gain.
Nicola Sturgeon says “Let’s try and instil a bit of hope and vision and optimism” and that is fine but the people, the voters, who will decide this referendum aren’t very interested in that any more than they were in Scotland two years ago. We might wish it otherwise but that’s the way it is.
Referendums are ghastly things.