You learn a lot about your country when you embark on a tour of 100 towns in 100 days. In the closing months of last year’s Scottish independence referendum campaign I did just that, taking my argument in support of the United Kingdom to open-air meetings on street corners and in town squares and shopping centres.
I learnt about Scotland’s beauty and its eccentricities. There was the man who jumped on to my crates, shouting “Traitor” into my ear. He said his name was William Wallace; I had my doubts. Then there was the guy whose dog had “Freedom” carefully written on its side in Biro. Many things were, in retrospect, funny. Occasionally the energy from nationalists was pretty unsavoury. But I learnt the truth of that adage of 1960s radicals: democracy is in the street.
I have been thinking about the independence referendum, and the close-run victory for the unionists, as we prepare for the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. There are four clear lessons for those of us who believe Britain needs to stay in the union — and the need for business to play a central role and speak up early is at their heart.
The first lesson is one I learnt out on the street: successful campaigns need a politics of engagement. To defeat the insurgent populism of the anti-Europeans we must think like them and fight like them — albeit the battleground has been transformed by Twitter and Facebook. The smartphone — the computer in the pocket of three out of four adults — is becoming a dominant source of news. Focus groups reveal significant use of news apps and strong opinions on them. One swing voter was so incensed by what he saw as BBC bias that he deleted the app from his phone and replaced it with Al Jazeera.
In Scotland, the debate and exchange of information went on everywhere: in cyberspace and at work and at home, in pubs and at school gates. And, with 16-year-olds given the vote, it was debated in classrooms, too. In a multichannel world, you cannot expect the public to come to you. That means thinking simultaneously and operating like an incumbent and an insurgent. Combine the firepower of an established actor with the nimbleness of a start-up. Above all, show you care as well as think.
The second lesson is the need for passion as well as facts. True passion in politics — as opposed to bland assertions of it — is rare. Modern politicians, at home in the world of PowerPoint presentations, are often disorientated when faced with the need to move hearts as well as minds.
In the UK election, we have just seen one of the most sanitised campaigns of modern times, where real people were kept behind the ropes. A similar lack of engagement was at times obvious in the work of Better Together, the cross-party campaign against Scottish independence. We had all the facts about the problems an independent Scotland would face, the number of jobs at risk and the costs of going it alone. But, by sticking to the facts, the No campaign left a gaping hole at its heart: call it pride, love or passion, but what was missing was emotion. We needed to present voters with an alternative form of patriotic optimism; the sense that we were not merely naysayers but believed fervently in a cause.
The same risk lies in the way the EU debate is shaping up. Too often it appears to be about the benefits of trading with European neighbours, with the choice being whether we are inside or outside the trading bloc. That is a minimalist view of what is at stake. And it is an argument pro-Europeans can never win since it is technical not emotional.
We, the pro-EU camp, need to emphasise the fact that Europe is not merely a free-trade area but also responsible for one of the great moral triumphs of our time: the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in the south and east of Europe. During the period of British membership, the EU has taken two waves of entrants and supported them on the journey from dictatorship to democracy. In the 1980s it was Spain, Portugal and Greece. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it was former members of the Communist eastern bloc.
I saw the value of the EU’s soft power at close quarters as Europe minister in 2007-08. Other aspiring nations modified their behaviour in the hope of a closer relationship with a single market that is also a human rights union.
So the European ideal is just that: an ideal, a vision. What we do as a force for tackling climate change, for spreading human rights, supporting good governance and tackling corruption in developing countries — all this must be front and centre of the campaign to stay in.
This goes to my third lesson: the importance of business. A danger for the No campaign in Scotland was that companies tried to sit out the campaign. There was no doubt most of them shared the view that it would be a significant risk to leave the economic, monetary and free trade union that is the UK. But some preferred a quiet life; others thought the referendum could be won without them.
That created problems. With late declarations by business leaders dismissed as scaremongering, the politicians had to carry too much of the argument. A plurality of voices is needed from the start; it gives the arguments far greater plausibility. Business people will be listened to in a different, more serious way on the economics. And it should not just be the biggest companies or those most exposed to the risk of a Brexit. Those who run trusted brands should speak out — particularly youth brands since young people are highly pro-European.
Finally, let us realise that this vote will not settle the European debate for a generation. That is an easy and early lesson from Scotland. For opponents of EU membership, the next referendum campaign starts when the returning officers make their declaration — assuming we vote to stay. That is just the way politics is.
We have a duty to make the patriotic case for being part of the EU anew every year. The fact that we have neglected to do so is what has led us here. We must not repeat the mistake. If
we do we will find ourselves here all over again.
Jim Murphy is Scottish Labour leader and was minister of Europe and secretary of state for Scotland