And Eck was cast into a furnace of fire: there was wailing and gnashing of teeth. To Britain’s journalists there was no question, Darling bested Salmond. To many Yes activists it felt the same. During a gruelling a two-year campaign, we’ve been called everything from “a virus” to Nazis. The endless attacks in the press have left us bruised, battered, and angry.
At last, we imagined, a chance to see our man, champion of so many a First Minister’s Question Time, finally sock it to them. In the run-in to the first debate, most Yes campaigners seemed to expect Salmond to wipe the floor with Darling. They anticipated a bloodbath, a humiliation, a ritual killing of the enemy that would relieve them of the oppressive weight of elite opprobrium.
It didn’t happen, of course. Salmond was conversational, not confrontational. He was badly caught out on currency, perhaps not realising that most Scots don’t know what the Bank of England actually does. His argument was correct, but little-understood. The entire press corps piled onto his weak point.
The debate itself was a score-draw. Remember the part where Alistair Darling couldn’t say the words “Scotland could be a successful independent country”, even when asked twenty times? Remember the derisive laughter from the audience when Darling claimed that the UK redistributes money from rich areas to poor areas?
The news coverage had the precision of a military Psy Op. Immediately after the debate, we were shown the clip of Salmond being barracked about currency. Then a panel of “five undecided voters” were shown talking about currency. Then the evening news began, reporting as its top story that Salmond couldn’t answer about currency. These moments were vital for memory formation. The next morning, every front page screamed that Salmond had no ‘Plan B’. By the following lunchtime, it required a massive conscious effort to remember that any other topic had been discussed.
Salmond will not be allowed to “win” the next debate either, no matter what he does or says. No-one can stop Darling from repeating an unanswerable question or disingenuous scare story again and again, and as long as he has done that, our obsequious press will make it the only event of the evening.
I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: the Yes campaign will not be allowed any wins in the press at any point in the whole campaign. Get used to it. Steel yourself for it.
That simple fact is why the SNP have adopted a very unusual strategy. I call it “Eckenaccio”.
The last time Walter Smith was manager of Rangers, he knew he didn’t have a world-beating team. So he adopted a hyper-defensive strategy in Europe, playing five centre-backs and a holding midfielder. Rangers would, agonisingly, spend the whole game defending, then win with a single goal right before the end. The strategy took them all the way to the UEFA Cup Final. Lionel Messi claimed it was “anti-football”, but sports journalists dubbed it “Waltanaccio”, after Catenaccio (“door-bolt”), a famous Italian defensive strategy.
Salmond’s Eckenaccio is a similar trick. Historically around 33% of Scots support independence. Over the last two years, we have made nary an attack – that has been left to the No campaign. They have attacked, and attacked, and attacked, and now support for independence is around 40% to 45%. Like Walter Smith’s Rangers team, we have soaked up the pressure, and only now, late in the game, are we even beginning our counteroffensive.
This hyper-defensive strategy has been horrible to take part in. All the focus has been on minimising the space given to our opponents – we’ll keep the pound, we’ll stay in NATO, we’ll keep the Queen. We’ve weathered the No campaign’s increasingly frenzied blows without reply.
A traditional strategy could never have worked in this media environment. We will not be allowed to win any arguments, or any debates. I’ve seen one high-quality SNP press release after another generate scant coverage. Any attempt to launch our offensives early would end in total defeat.
Instead, Eckenaccio allows the enemy to commit to a weak argument, to become arrogant and make mistakes. They have done exactly that over currency – they are in the jaws of a trap. When the Scottish people realise that the unionist currency claim amounts to “Scotland doesn’t own a share of anything, England owns everything,” they will be outraged. The third most important task for the Yes campaign in the coming weeks is to close that trap.
The second most important task is to continually deliver our positive message. The Eckenaccio formula, honed over two elections, is designed to smuggle key messages through a hostile media. In a debate? Ignore it, deliver the message. Jackie Bird is literally hissing at you? Ignore it, deliver the message. Half the country has just started paying attention. They will only see us on TV a few times, so they’d better hear us speaking about what we intend to do for the country. As many as one in four voters will make up their minds in the last two weeks, and many of them only in the ballot box itself.
The final, and most important task is to turn out our vote. Forget polls and percentages – if 1.6 million people turn up to vote Yes, we win. We will have 1 million signatures on the Yes declaration, and an untold mountain of canvassing data. For the last week, the huge ground campaign will dedicate itself solely to making sure those people vote. If they vote, we’ll win.
Eckenaccio is gruelling, horrible, agonising, but it is the only strategy with a hope of beating the might of the British state. In a very real sense the campaign has only just begun. Hold to your stations, hold to your duties, and hold your nerve. We’re going to win this.