Margo MacDonald: All’s fair in love, war and politics

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The Yes side in the referendum campaign has announced that it will take as its iconic leader the late Mother Theresa.

Well, perhaps these exact words were not used. But when my long-time colleague Dennis Canavan, formerly the independent MSP, announces that as chairman of the Yes campaign he will only say positive things about both sides then people who’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with him on past campaigns regret his change of tack.

The Yes campaign is open to anyone, from all parties or of no party, but its direction is influenced by the SNP. The nationalist politicians are led by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In another newspaper, she announced the start of the positive campaign. Now just why do naturally combative politicians like these two feel the need to change their straight-for-the-jugular habit?

In all probability, there’s been a wee bit of an atypical analysis done, and acted upon, before some of the older (and wiser?) campaigners could add their experience to what is supposed to be a very broad church, but what is beginning to look like just another Alex Salmond fan club. The SNP can hardly be blamed for having the bigger number of activists in the Yes camp, but it’s stretching credulity to believe that all of them are quite happy to be positive, and presumably smiling, in response to the negative statistics, lies and refusals to accept the truth (if it supports the Yes case) that characterise the No side.

Sturgeon, one of the painfully small number of SNP politicians responsible for what they call strategy, but which others call woolly-headedness, says positivity wins votes and negative campaigning turns people off. Only up to a point, M’Lord. It’s easier to cite examples of where good old-style destructive campaigning not only won the argument, the campaign being contested and the election, but for good measure squashed the losing candidate.

Even I don’t remember it, but I’ve read about how the saintly JFK endorsed a poster for his campaign against Richard Milhous Nixon that showed an unflattering image of Nixon with a five o’clock shadow, captioned “Would you buy a used car from this man?”. In beating up Nixon, and winning the presidency, Kennedy also lied about there being a missile gap between the USA and the USSR.

Or how about George Bush Snr’s tactical approach of diminishing everything said by the Democrats’ candidate Michael Dukakis with sniggering references to the raised heels worn to compensate for his lack of height? Bush made sure of a positive outcome for the Republicans by blaming Dukakis for a murder committed by a convicted killer on parole, because he had freed him when he was governor of Massachusetts.

And when it came to be George W’s time to cheat, lie and trick his way into the office once occupied by his daddy, he didn’t let the family standards in negative campaigning slip. He destroyed his opponent’s “character” in the eyes of voters by calling Senator Kerry everything short of a liar over his description of rescuing members of his patrol boat crew in Vietnam.

Negative campaigning three, 
positivity zilch.

But we haven’t all that much to learn from the Americans. In the 1979 referendum campaign, the negative flights of fancy of the No campaign would have fitted in neatly to today’s approach. According to the ’79 No campaign, we were certain to be cut off from everything we hold dear and of having to produce passports at the Border every time we felt like some civilised company. Still, train journeys would be thrilling for younger members of the family as they could watch as the train wheels were changed to fit the different gauge north of the Border. Honest, that was an argument against the then planned assembly.

As for oil, it was dismissed as a source of funding for new infrastructure by the No side on the grounds that it would soon run out, and then who’d want to know us? Voters who were already feeling the blows of the rising unemployment statistics were a push-over for a campaign to stick with the devil they knew. Does this sound 
familiar?

This time round it’s our isolation from the EU that’s being used as a frightener. Some people in No may follow Alastair Darling’s decent and well-mannered refusal to get personal or deep down and dirty, but the campaign will misrepresent, ignore and tell lies about facts that support the Yes argument. There’s just too much expert opinion around that has the oil remaining as a major resource for at least 40 years for the No side to believe otherwise. But it’s winning support with its lies.

Bring on the positivity?