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A rare turn of intimacy in Scottish referendum ‘no’ campaign

I’ve been watching the Scottish independence referendum with interest, as you’d expect of an Englishman that lived in Edinburgh for five years. While I do hope the Scots flip the switch on the UK in 9 days and vote ‘Yes’, that is not what is interesting me particularly. As a storyteller, I want to zero in on a particular event that happened today that I thought revealed an interesting truth about storytelling: that the more you have a stake in what you are talking about, the more you are committed, the greater your credibility.

First of all, I want to make it clear that this is about more than just the campaigns. The reason for the hitherto success of the Yes campaign is not all to do with the magic of Alex Salmond. It has been an exercise in civil democracy, with huge public participation and civil mobilisation around this urgent topic. Perpetuating the idea of centralised campaign teams somehow pulling a fast trick on voters fails to learn the lesson of what the referendum has become about: that Scottish people do not feel governed, they feel patronised. Alex Salmond has made hay with that sentiment, but it was there already. That said, I am going to focus on a strange turn of behaviour from Cameron and Miliband that happened today. It struck me as most strange.

In panic mode, the leaders of the three main UK parties have sprinted to Scotland to persuade the Scots to stay. They are under severe pressure. David Cameron the Prime Minister made a huge mistake in not setting up the referendum question democratically, making it a straight yes/no for independence rather than including a middle way – known as devo max – that was already known to be popular. As a conservative, to be the Prime Minister who split the union is unbearable. Meanwhile his opposite number Ed Milliband – a brilliant mind, but overshrill in public – faces the prospect of his party losing vast numbers of seats in parliament if Scotland withdraws. Nick Clegg was there, which all anyone mostly needs to say about him.

The tactics of the London parties have been extraordinarily obtuse, perhaps even bullying. Isolated in the Westminster village they simply did not get how alienated the (whole British) public has become. When they see Cameron dining at high dinner tables, they become infuriated. Even worse, when Ed Miliband empathises – as he did when losing the Bradford bi-election – he infuriates the public even more. These really are people who want action. They don’t want gestures, they want real listening. When the floods hit Somerset earlier this year, Miliband was booed out of a local meeting. The trust has gone. In such a situation it does not matter what you say, it is what you do. And most of what people see British politicians do is scream at each other and ignore their interests. It does not take a partisan to see that their interests are not mine. Those in power hardly balance interest but favour those who keep them in power. As an arbiter of power, the last Labour and now the Conservative governments have been lousy. They elevated those who could elevate them. The wider populace has hardly come into it, except to analyse target groups. The UK journalists are not much better. Only John Harris of the Guardian actually goes and talks to people.

For the last year, all 2.2 major UK parties have TOLD the Scottish they could not keep the pound, given off signals that the Scots don’t understand what they are doing, and generally used scare tactics. Not once has a bright vision been used. This is because they don’t have one. These politicians are administrators: of opinion, of debates, of the press and of their own parties. If they had a value it is long-submerged under expediency. For this I can hardly blame them, the modern press circus (and me devouring each news cycle) hardly lets them breathe let alone think. But they are our leaders, and they do not lead. They do not know themselves, and cannot expect a public to know them either.

This makes what happened today all the more striking. Miliband and Cameron (and Clegg) spoke in intimate settings making impassioned pleas for the Scots to stay. They did not try to reach out any more but stated in quite personal terms what this means to them that Scotland should stay. We don’t know if it will work but it brought at least my attention to a halt. They were prepared to be themselves in the hope that such a demonstration of trust could inspire the Scots to trust them too. It’s this factor I call radical subjectivity – that what your audience cares about as much as their own story is your own. By showing what you really care about, by putting your own skin in the game, your proving what you really share – which is at bottom is deep value. Radical subjectivity is the recognition that by being most ourselves, we are acknowledging that we are more completely together. Perhaps even ‘Better‘ as such.

So what in your story is not really showing you?

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