While I was working up to writing my previous post on the rhetoric of the independence campaign, I put a few feelers out to see if anyone I knew was interested in talking about the language of the referendum – campaign slogans, press sound bites, dramatic headlines, things they’d overheard on the bus, etc.
As my pal Scott can attest – having witnessed my reaction to the arrival of a few fairly graphic comic book panels I’d described in a script but not fully anticipated – I’m a fairly verbally minded sort of guy, so the first response I got took me by surprise by focusing on the use of national iconography during the campaign.
What follows is a transcript of a conversation about the visual rhetoric and branding of the debate, as conducted with a friend who is involved enough in this area to want to remain anonymous.
ANONYMOUS: The adoption of the saltire colours on both sides of the debate was really interesting to watch – ‘Look we’re deffo more Scottish that you are’/ ‘ Naw you’re not, we are!’
I found that the Yes campaign’s use of the Scottish flag with the ‘Yes’ slogan emblazoned on it it in black contrasted with the ‘No Thanks’ cross a little puzzling.
Was it a saltire cross? Was it a ballot box cross? Were the Yes campaign just quick off the mark to adopt the saltire first? I guess both sides wanted to be viewed as the most Scottish option.
Personally I found both sides’ desperation to appear the most Scottish frustrating as a voter – I am voting to better the future of my country, to make it a better place to live for me and my children. I get that you are both patriotic but I don’t care. I’m not going to cast my vote based on which option is the most Scottish thing to do. Was the referendum not meant to be all about change?
What frustrated me most was perhaps the arrogance (!?) the Yes campaign showed about using the saltire. In an election surely using the nation’s flag on your merchandise shouldn’t be allowed? Everything is meant to be fair and equal, but perhaps I’m wrong, maybe they just got their mits on it first.
FUNCTION OF THE FILTH: It occurs to me that this is the sort of thing that big N nationalist parties do as standard. The BNP have a Union Flag in the shape of a heart as their logo on the ballot paper, while UKIP go straight for the wallet by using the pound sign as the backdrop to theirs.
My question is, do we ignore this stuff in that context because we’re already rolling our eyes when we look that at those logos? Maybe the sentimental appeal to nationhood doesn’t have the time to stick with you when these parties use it, in contrast with the independence campaign, which wasn’t supposed to be about all that stuff.
ANON: It hadn’t twigged with me that other parties do use the flags too (but of course they do!), but I think I’m a little confused what you are meaning? Do you mean we are used to these logos coming from the big N nationlists?
FotF: Yeah, sorry – I didn’t phrase that very well! I just wonder if we take this for granted when, say, the BNP do it. I’ll admit that I had to sit and think for a minute before I remembered what UKIP’s logo even was, and I must see that a lot right now, right?
It jumped out at me that the Yes camp were using the saltire so heavily and while I wasn’t surprised I was kinda disappointed. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I think maybe it’s because that it plays to the sort of clichéd patriotism that the verbal side of the campaign was generally more clever about – the appeal was there, but it was a lot broader than that and not too forceful.
ANON: That makes a lot of sense! I couldn’t quite pinpoint why I felt disappointed by their use of the saltire. It seemed unimaginative, insular – exactly what what I see those big N nationalist as.
I should add that I voted Yes, but generally was really annoyed by all of Yes Scotland’s sentimental adverts with wee children’s hands. On the other side the No campaign made a right hash of their marketing too – someone shoulda employed me!
FotF: Would you say you have a strong sense of national identity? If so, is it the sort of national identity that was being targeted?
ANON: I would say that yes I feel a strong sense of national identity. I feel Scottish and certainly both sides targeted this ‘Scottishness’, implying that they, not the opposition was the most Scottish.
FotF: So neither side was successful in appealing to you on this level. Why do you think that is? I know you said that you thought this wasn’t what you felt the referendum was about, but do you think there was another approach that might have engaged you more?
ANON: I think I could talk for a week on this subject! Yeah, I voted Yes despite what the Yes campaign said. For me it was when the smaller organisations, artists or business leaders talked of the chance to make real change happen in my lifetime that I began to feel the issues I thought were important were addressed. For me it was all about the hope that we could make a genuinely better country coupled with the fear that we really weren’t sure if we could go it alone. I think if the big campaign parties had addressed these genuine concerns rather than dismissing the fear over uncertainty we might have seen a different result.
I also think there was an opportunity for the Yes campaign to use imagery of a modern Scotland, rather than re-issuing the same PR friendly images of Scotland in their advertising – children, ethnically diverse shop keepers, students, farmers. I think they could have been braver.
<——THANK YOU ANONYMOUS!
Full disclosure: While I don’t think in visual terms, I’m generally a bit squiffy around national pageantry, and you should probably take that into account when reading the comments on either side of this sentence. I don’t like to feel like I’m signing up for something that I even slightly disagree with now/may have slightly disagreed with in the past/might have cause to disagree with in the future. Flags fly a little too easily for me; they don’t discriminate, which makes me want to.
It’s too late to waste time arguing that the broader Yes campaign was a strange mix of nationalists, environmentalists, businessmen, career politicians and radicals working towards a fixed date and temporary purpose, but this was how I experienced it, and I felt more at home in the flux of it than I could under any flag.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the aftermath was always going to be difficult in a way the build up wasn’t. We’ll never know how the dust would have settled in the quake-wrecked post-YES landscape, but as we move towards the 2015 general election it’s easy to feel constrained by the choices immediately in front of us.
Of the parties involved in the YES campaign, the SNP are the only ones who seem to have a chance of winning big in Scotland – for all their outsider status they are also, not coincidentally, the party most at ease in the world of contemporary politics. As a member of the Scottish Greens I’ll urge you to support them wherever they stand because I think they’ve got the best policies (big up Peter McColl for Edinburgh East!), but I’d be daft to try and convince you that they’re going to storm it next year.
(Holyrood 2016 is a different story, but it’s one we’ll save for another day.)
From the parties on the NO side of the campaign, you have a three course feast of yesterday’s dinner: austerity economics, depressing responses to UKIP’s retrograde challange and shockingly poor excuses for the same.
The scope of what’s possible is narrowing again, at least for the short term. Yes was multi-dimensional because it was based on possibility, and none of the potential outcomes for 2015 are much in keeping with the hopes/fears/desires of most Yes voters. Nor, indeed, will all No voters find themselves satisfied with the options in front of them.
Like my Anonymous friend, I saw the referendum as an opportunity to move past easily sold versions of what Scotland could be and towards a vision that had a little bit more of the mess of reality in it.
This won’t be achieved by clutching flags through foam fingers or declaring that “democracy rocks”, but crudely parodying Sturgeonfest in this manner or dismissing the SNP’s new membership as a mass of “zoomers” is also plainly inadequate. Twitter is like a test ground for rockets sometimes, and the unfathomable explosions of certain 45ers can make it hard to maintain the will to involve yourself in what’s going on. Still, while I have my issues with the SNP and have had a few… uninspiring twitter arguments with fellow Yes voters, I know several decent, politically savvy people who have joined the dominant Yes party since September and I would be loathe to write them and others like them off out of anti-nat panic.
To move forward I think we – meaning people who saw in the referendum a window for genuine change, as though they’d want me to speak for them! – need to develop a rhetoric that allows us to accommodating the doubts about Yes fundamentalism expressed over on Promised Joy while accepting that Alistair Davidson’s roundabout rebuttal makes some valid points about the relationship between class and national identity in Scotland, and how this aspect of the debate has been inflected by the fear of the mob. We need to be wary of clinging to easy post-referendum myths while also treating certain even-less informed takes on the situation with the cool contempt they deserve.
We might want to try and manage of all of this without using a quest for nuance as an excuse for getting distracted from actually doing anything.
In short, we – and again, I put the “who?” into hubris – need to work out how build an open, critical politics that is bigger than any one political party or election or interest group and yet remains capable of enacting real change. Now of course I don’t have any idea how you would go about this, but I do know that it would take more than a flag to unite people behind such an idea. Maybe I should ask my Anonymous friend for help, in the hopes of learning from the mistakes of the past…
With a little luck, I reckon we can probably get it sorted by this time next week – what do you think?