A week today, the votes of people in Scotland will determine the future of the United Kingdom. As an English Brit, I have no choice but to wait, fingers crossed, to see what they decide. Hopefully a majority will see the sense of staying part of the UK and reject independence.
But therein lies the problem for the "Better Together" campaign. Because of the way that the question has been formulated, they have been dealt the "No" card. And No is, by definition, negative! Its role in language is to point out where things don't make sense; not to 'pull at the heartstrings' or create positive vibes. Nor does "No" sit comfortably alongside creative new visions of the future. It's about continuity, rather than change. Preservation rather than possibility. Being against something, rather than for it.
Unsurprisingly then, the pro-union voices have been accused of scaremongering and negativity, as they've sought to counter the speculative claims of the Independents. And, most significantly, they've inevitably struggled to match the positive, emotional appeal that is implicit in the word "Yes".
In one of his excellent early books (Po: Beyond Yes and No, 1972), Edward de Bono talks about the ways in which our use of the "Yes/No system" both enables and constrains our thinking. He does this, in particular, to expose its flaws in relation to creativity. But his comments also throw light on the handicap that those in the "Better Together" campaign have to overcome, simply because they are arguing for people to vote "No".
"NO," says de Bono, "is the basic tool of logical thinking." And so logic has inevitably framed the way in which those in 'the No camp' have set about putting their case. Logic is cold. It can appear arrogant and smug. It is, to use another of de Bono's metaphors, the essence of "Black Hat" thinking.
In contrast, as he goes on to say, "... YES is much more than the simple absence of NO. YES has a very strong emotional basis. YES is the basic tool of the belief system. With beliefs it is not just a matter of not saying NO but of saying YES, YES, YES a thousand times... in practice you have to build up a very powerful and almost emotional NO in order to challenge an emotion-based YES. Mere evidence is not enough."
A United Kingdom not a divided Britain
Hopefully, despite their in-built disadvantage, those seeking to sustain and strengthen the United Kingdom will be able to conjure up the "emotional NO" to which de Bono refers. And they'll be able to persuade the justifiably proud Scots that they can also take pride in their own - and their forebears' - Britishness. However, looking at things through an informal coalitions lens highlights some possible causes for concern:
- As Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister and leader of the "Yes" campaign, insightfully said after one of the TV debates, the election won't be won and lost on the basis of platform speeches and televised debates. Instead, it will be determined by the day-to-day conversations that ordinary people throughout Scotland have with each other. And the latest anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that his "Yes" campaigners are using the positive emotional appeal of their argument to make the most of this dynamic. In contrast, those putting the case for a "No" vote have tended to rely on very credible, but emotionally neutral and negative statements made by a host of 'Big Guns', who have used public statements and formal events to point out the risks to Scotland in a break-up of the UK. Yesterday's very emotional statement by Prime Minister David Cameron was a welcome shift in tone. Amongst other things, he pleaded with people not to vote "Yes" simply because they were "fed-up with the effing Tories." And he said that he "... would be heartbroken if this family of nations... was torn apart". At the same time, though, it is not what he and other senior figures say and do that's most important. It's how people make sense of what they've heard and how they decide to act, as they chat together informally, in the privacy of their own homes; at their places of work; in shops, bars and restaurants; and so on.
- Consistent with the above, the "Yes" campaigners appear to have been increasingly successful in mobilizing an informal coalition of support around an emotionally appealing - if totally speculative - vision of a Scotland that has freed itself from the heavy burdens of a supposedly repressive England (in particular), and in which people will all 'live happily ever after'.
- Thirdly, there has been a sharp polarization of the debate. This is a natural dynamic that occurs whenever people find themselves interacting together in the midst of competing views. But it means that a lot of 'healing' will be required, both within Scotland (whatever the outcome) and with the rest of the UK, if a "No" vote prevails. Importantly, as de Bono again says, such "... polarizations are dangerous because they create simple rigid judgements for complex situations. The YES/NO system is an amplifier of small differences because it works only with extremes... The effect is to polarize people even beyond their own natural tendencies." And this is an effect that the leaders of the "Yes" campaign appear to be adept at exploiting to the full.
The fateful question
Working to ensure that the separatist option would sit alongside "Yes" on the ballot paper was a 'canny' decision by those seeking independence. And allowing this choice to be made was a fateful oversight by those orchestrating the pro-UK campaign. Hopefully, when people wake up on 19th September, it won't prove to have been a disastrous one for those whose identity is closely bound up with the past, present, and hoped-for future of a United Kingdom of Wales, Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland.