My response to Kenneth Macdonald on Scotland’s Twitter referendum

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I think Kenneth Macdonald knows how much a fan I am of his BBC Radio Scotland’s Headlines paper review on Sunday mornings. I hope I won’t add to his employer’s hopes to close the program down by saying how much I enjoy it. Pretending I dislike it as some calculated double bluff will fool no one, so bollocks to that.

Ken’s Headlines is one of the BBC programs that merits being listened to more than once. One of the things I’ve liked about Ken from the first time I heard him was his sense of humor. He’s much funnier than most professional comedians. He is also wonderful at bringing out the best in other people, including those I generally have no time for.

Ken always has guests who support Better Together. Do I agree with them? No. But they all seem to enjoy being on the show as much as I enjoy listening to it. And they all relax enough to prove that they too can, in the right circumstances, in the right company, be almost as witty as Ken, even the likes of Euan McColm and Katie Grant. This helps the debate on independence. Introducing as much humor into our debate as possible drains the poison out from both sides. Everyone becomes humanized. All of us cease to be simply bogey men, or bogey women. Thank God for that. We need a lot more of this.

This relaxed debate allows everyone to make excellent points. Everyone on Ken’s show makes me think. Not just those who agree with me. And everyone who does agree with me on the main points raise other issues that I take issue with, very strongly. Is that a problem? Of course not. Ken also raises very important points that don’t get challenged, but deserve to be. At the very least, we need to tease out exactly what is being said. That is another key point.

On this week’s show, as happens a fair bit, we discovered that guests were arguing at cross purposes. Specifically, it was well into a discussion that Ken’s guests discovered that one thought she was clearly arguing that the Daily Record might declare a position, whereas the other jumped to the conclusion that she was saying they’d come out in support of Scottish independence. It was obvious to me before either of them noticed that they were not on the same page.

Something similar took place over the discussion on David Trimble. All of them had great respect for him. I wish I had time to tweet some feedback on this. I didn’t. I do now, but it would take me too far into a side issue. I’ll pass for the time being.

I want to discuss a few of the issues addressed by Ken where I think he raised interesting points, but didn’t get it right. Ken wondered if the Sunday Herald’s editor is attempting to lead opinion or following it. I think this is a false dichotomy. As Fraser Nelson has conceded on Twitter, at least a third of Scots support independence. There is clearly a market niche here and trying to fill it makes a lot of commercial sense. The editor denied he was trying to influence his readers. I have to agree with Ken that this makes no sense.

Newtonian mechanics refers to an equal and opposite reaction when it comes to forces. As American physicist John Archibald Wheeler explained of Einstein’s general relativity, ‘Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move.’ In other words, there are feedback loops where it becomes difficult to distinguish cause and effect.  There is self-evidently a reciprocal relationship between a predicted growth (inevitable in my opinion) in the Sunday Herald’s readership on the one hand and numbers coming out in defense of Scottish independence on the other.

In the world of political actors, we have to play with the cards we are dealt. It’s like a surfer. The waves don’t do our job for us. But in the absence of the waves, we are not going anywhere. That brings me to something else: the role of social media as something more than noise or background radiation that won’t affect anything in the real world. That’s just not true.

Ken argued that social media may not change anything. If he truly believes that, then I  disagree. Very strongly. Before explaining what I think the role of twitter is in Scotland’s independence referendum, let me address some of the reasons why, in my opinion, the Yes Campaign dominates Twitter.

The Better Together campaign are using texts and emails for a reason. I believe their activists are wedded to relatively lengthy pieces of propaganda, much longer than fits into a tweet. They have come to expect their letter-writing campaigns to be rewarded by having them read out by the broadcasters they know support them. That at any rate is the theory. And in general it has been working. However,….

Twitter is an infinitely more democratic medium than what came before. Here, at long last, we are growing up inside a democratic medium, one where what I say is as accessible to everyone as is the thoughts of billionaire Rupert Murdoch. If people want to be able to see what I think (and not just those employed by the NSA and GCHQ), they can all easily get access it. No billionaire can censor me. The same goes for billions of others. The rich and powerful are not at all happy with this. Good. Fuck ’em.

But while Twitter is the universal suffrage equivalent of broadcasting, the downside is so little has to be squeezed into bite-sized chunks: a mere 140 characters. But our side, the good guys (and gals), the masses, have been forced to do this for such a long time we have got the hang of it. By contrast, the other side, the toadies who have sold themselves to the rich and powerful broadcasters… They tend, on the whole, to be clueless. Hilariously so.

Our side use short, sharp bursts of humor, focused laser-like. We’re like hecklers reducing the audience of David Dimbleby’s Question Time to laughter. At any rate, that is what we are aiming for. Hit and miss. Naturally. But is humor all we can get from Twitter in Scotland’s independence referendum? Or similar campaigns? No, of course it’s not.

Twitter and all forms of social media are subordinated to our overall goal: winning the Scottish referendum. Some of us are orators or good at debate. Some are good at writing complex articles that address difficult questions, like economics. Others are good at Twitter. Or design. Songs. Stand up comedy. Murals. Sunday Herald front page designs. Novels. Poetry. Theater plays. Films. Animation. We all try to play our part. Do whatever we can. We pull our weight. And if one of us can’t do something, we see if there is something else they can do instead, or we try to pass on our skills to others. We cooperate. Because that is how we in the Yes Campaign roll.

In the Yes Campaign we park our differences for the greater good. We discuss differences. We agree to disagree, if that’s the best we can do for the time being. We shake hands, and leave as friends. If some of us can’t stand the sight of some other supporters of Scottish independence, that’s fine: in such circumstances, we avoid each other; we don’t make a scene. We refuse to descend into public squabbling, as that’s precisely what David Cameron needs us to do. Sorry, but we see through that bullshit.

Twitter is particularly important for us. Why is that? Ken said he doesn’t think we are likely to persuade anyone. This is a very important question. I have virtually no hope I will persuade too many hardened activists in the No Campaign, even though on some political issues I remain quite close to a few of these people. Any of them who is willing to debate with me with respect will be treated with respect, but if I see little prospect of persuading individuals, I’ve better things to do with my time. And I would have thought they do too.

Most of the activists from the No Campaign who are queuing up to debate with me, on Twitter or Facebook or someone’s blog, expose themselves quite quickly as trolls. I have ended up blocking these people if I can’t shake them off any other way. Debate with them is pointless. Nevertheless, what matters are the numbers of undecideds, and that means I cannot ignore all the No Campaign activists.

There is a truly enormous percentage of undecideds. Some in the Yes Campaign have argued that such people are either too lazy to do any reading or too stupid to vote. The arguments of such allegedly Yes Campaigners is so nasty I have to wonder if they’re not paid by the British state as agent provocateurs, deliberately trying to discredit genuine supporters of Scottish independence. And that is not a joke. Some of these people deserve to be treated with considerable suspicion.

I’m pretty sure the expression “spectrum of indecision” vis-a-vis Scottish independence was first raised by psephologist John Curtice. Whoever is behind it has got it absolutely right. I took about three decades to come down definitely in favor of independence. And I knew the referendum was on the way many months before I even suggested I am heading for a Yes vote. I have made it clear that I don’t think the difference between male and female voters is likely to be that great when the ballot boxes close. The real difference is likely to be that fewer women are declaring for either side until they are absolutely sure.

The arguments around the economy are clearly the hardest to win for either side. But I suspect Max Keiser’s Scottish Independence special may tip the balance for many undecideds. The declaration of one of Scotland’s quality newspapers (The Sunday Herald), the only one to declare for anyone so far, the ignominious disintegration of the Scottish CBI, with the fear of the loss of markets by all businesses… Scotland’s arts and cultural community, almost to a man and woman, being behind independence… All we have against us is 100% of the United Kingdom’s five broadcast networks and all four of the parties that will be invited to participate in the United Kingdom’s Prime Ministerial Debates.

Given the never-ending drivel of the broadcasters, Twitter allows our side to keep our heads up. We offer real-time exposes of what the mass media is up to, of their distortions. We are able to offer instantaneous corrections to all the lies of the broadcasters, and coordinate with one another. This is not unimportant. Do we change the minds of Better Together activists? Highly unlikely. So what? We do play a key role in allowing us all to work as part of a massive team of citizen journalists. The political climate would be very different if we were not there. And we are not going away.

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