2007 - 2021

Move Ouvre Darling

Dolly_MixturesMike Small on Borgen, sleaze, and dolly mixture.

On the eve of the final day for voter registration for the Scottish Independence Referendum, grassroots yes activists have argued that the huge success of their efforts to engage and re-engage the ‘missing million’ voters in Scotland who have either never voted before or have dropped out of political participation could make the difference in winning a yes vote on September 18th.

The comments were made at today’s #AllYes Daily Press Conference, which you can watch here.

Jonathon Shafi, co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign, who have focused it’s activities over the past week on registering unemployed people to vote in the referendum at Job Centre’s, said:

“At one visit to a Job Centre in Dundee we had 100 people register to vote, in Glasgow we had 30 people in one hour at a Job Centre. We think across Scotland at Job Centre’s over the past week we’ve registered at least 1500 people. In three hours on Saturday at our Glasgow Takeover in the city centre, we had 300 people register to vote. That’s people giving their full details to someone who they have most likely never met before, because they want to make sure they can vote Yes on September 18th. And that’s just a snapshot of what’s going on across the country – we believe there’s a political earthquake happening.”

Looking back it’s clear that the two sides in the referendum have even working from not just entirely different outlooks, modes of working but also completely different base assumptions. One, a professional campaign has engaged all the powers of the state and the media to install doubt and sew fear. The other has sprawled chaotically into a broad movement brimming with energy and optimism.

One has tried to emphasise continuity, security and prosperity against a backdrop of jihadism xenophobia and endemic poverty. One has tried to emphasise hope and vision out of this mess of foreign policy nightmares, crippling debt and militarism by exploring a Nordic model of social solidarity, cohesion and public services.

As various No supporters (such as Allan Massie) have outlined though, the negativity from No has some legitimacy. Their starting point is ‘No’. They are defending (they think) the status quo. They want no change, so there is little to articulate. It’s their prerogative to be negative.

‘Why change at all?’ they challenge.

It’s a dangerous approach for No as the polls close day on day. The No Campaign seems to have had a policy of disengagement: don’t show up for debates, close down argument, unthink. RIC’s Jonathon Shafi again:

“They are not trying to register new voters, they are not trying to engage people, and they are out of arguments. Their strategy is simply to turn out the existing vote through hysteria about the danger of a yes vote. Our approach is the complete opposite – we want to win this by empowering the people who have never before felt like politics could improve their lives. And I think we are winning.”


Whilst the Yes campaign has been relentlessly positive, it’s not been exclusively so. There’s been (rightly) plenty of dark messages about the consequences of a No victory.

What we have seen from the Yes side, is at base level, an approach that is now very widespread across change theory in management for businesses, organisations or mass projects. It’s called ‘appreciative inquiry’.

Here’s a definition:

‘Appreciative Inquiry is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. It centrally involves the mobilization of inquiry through the crafting of the “unconditional positive question” often-involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.’

Basically, Yes has looked for what’s best here (now) – and seen hope and energy in our people, our natural resources, our history and geography, our infrastructure. No has looked for all that is doubtful and problematic. But it’s not a straightforward optimist / pessimist divide. Many unionists are hopeless optimists, as they see nothing wrong with the present arrangements. Many Yes supporters are hopeless pessimists because they see only the bad in anything British.

Instead, an appreciative inquiry approach asks you to look at potential. An appreciative inquiry approach suggests four stages: discovery: the best of what is/what works well? dream: what might be; design: what should be; destiny: empower, adjust, learn and do.

It’s this dynamic that’s at play that gives the Yes movement a sense of momentum and trajectory. We are future-focused and motivated. The No campaign seems mired in the past and in a sense of hopeless complacency.

Appreciative Inquiry doesn’t mean that you ignore problems or complexity, in fact it is motivated by a recognition of the need for real change. But it does ask you look to your best.  It identifies and analyses the community’s past successes. This strengthens people’s confidence in their own capacities and inspires them to take action. Allied to this approach is asset-based community development, a process of self-mobilisation and organising for change. It’s about moving away from a dependency culture. This involves mapping the capacities and assets of individuals, associations and institution, before building a vision and plan.

All of the efforts of the spiraling Yes groups mirror these approaches, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes consciously.

This is the background thinking that has meant that whilst Better Together band outlier groups seem shrouded in perpetual (and sometimes ridiculous) gloom and paranoia, Yes has a sense of purpose that is infectious.

This positivity confuses some. Andrew Marr has written: “And so we have this new nationalism: well-behaved, politically correct and eager, always, to please. It’s a social-democratic, Borgen nationalism of a kind that would have had MacDiarmid spitting tacks.”

Maybe that’s true, but that’s no bad thing. We have all of the poets, some of them are even alive, and (whisper it), some of them are even women.


But the idea of a new  politics is worth exploring. Borgen did three things. It gave us a fantastic example of a lead female politician of a small north European state. And as we followed the charismatic Birgitte Nyborg the not-so-subliminal message was clear: we could do this. The second thing that it did, as did the darker prequel The Bridge, was to make live the relationship between two states that had separated and are now good neighbours. Severed bodies aside, the border between the two nations is a feat of engineering to be admired not a thing to be feared. It’s a Bridge, not a barrier.

Nobody is separate separated or cut off because they elect their own government. Nobody seceded into obscurity.

Both countries are full members of the Nordic Council, of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, of the Council of Europe, and of the European Union. Around 21,000 Swedish people live in Denmark and around 42,000 Danish people live in Sweden.

For emotional No’s this is a powerful lesson. Scandinavians can still be Scandinavians and share a common culture and co-operation. They can ‘be in the world’ but they also have pride about their cultural integrity and manage their own affairs. As a mirror for the ‘UK’ this model is worth reflecting on.

The third thing Borgen did was to bring normalcy to the very idea of a small country. What does that look like? Feel like? It suffers from the same problems of complexity, media distortion and difficult political and moral choices. Nyborg and her party navigate these waters there same as the rest of the world, as best they can, as will we. Democracy is normal.

This idea of it being okay to live in a democracy has now percolated down into most of Scottish society. Not bad for the 21st C.

But the idea of a Borgen politics is important. It consolidates and consoles the idea that concerns some wavering No voters: ‘I like being British’. ‘I like the idea of Britain’ ‘ I like being part of something bigger’. To which you can say: that’s okay, we’re going nowhere, we will still be part of Britain in a cultural, historical and geographical reality. Your Smiths albums are not going to self-combust on September 19th.

Sea Change

If the ‘appreciative enquiry’ approach – looking to the best within – has dominated the movement for independence, it would not have had any traction had it not been all happening in the context of wider change. The terror of the ‘Arc of Insolvency’ isn’t really wheeled out any more, partly because it’s counterpart, the Austerity Union is a much more real live threat and reality. As Iain Macwhirter  pointed out, the idea put forward by Alastair Darling that the Work Programme, the scheme that has had unemployed people working in Poundland for nothing, would be a bonus power brought to Scotland in the event of No is such a pitiful remark it’s unclear where to begin. In 2012 Liam Byrne – then Labour’s Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary said:

“The Work Programme is now comprehensively failing to get people back to work. The Government, when it went out to award these contracts, said that, if it did nothing it would expect about 5 people in every 100 who are long term unemployed to find a job. What these figures show is that actually only 2 people in every 100 are finding a job through the Work Programme. So, in other words, the Work Programme has turned out to be worse than doing nothing.”

So much for new powers.

Here was a senior Labour politician on live television whose best offer was a programme that leaves unemployed people working for free in Poundland. It’s worth remembering that Gordon Brown’s

Britain is broken, and the aspiration on the table from Darling is truly woeful. Britain is knee-deep in debt and all the unionist parties now share an austerity economics that has been proven to fail. A no vote won’t be a return to the pre-2008 economics, nor will it be a return to the 1950s some on the right seem to yearn for.

People resist change but when change starts to happen it happens with bewildering speed.

From the collapse of the banks, to the disappearance of Woolworth’s pick and mix from our high streets, to the emergence of food banks as a new marker in abject poverty, Britain’s been changing rapidly over the last few years and the rise of a new Scottish democracy is just one expression of that wider movement.

Britain may have talent, but in 2014 the prospect for this talent is to work for free in Poundland. Some vision.

But it makes sense. It’s a brutal economics for a place that has become more and more closed, less and less hopeful, more and more repressive.

The mainstreaming of surveillance techniques on peaceful protestors, the extensive use of agent provocateurs such as Mark Stone/Kennedy, the kettling of thousands of young people, the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 and the cover-up that followed, the visceral response to the Dale Farm gypsy encampment: all of this combined to create a perception of England as a more brutal, troubled place. This is Paul Dacre’s and Richard Desmond’s England. It was a place without dolly mixture.

In the process something has broken. For all the steady stream of commentators who insists there is nothing (nothing!) distinct about Scotland or Scottish politics or culture, something has shifted, and the attempts to re-examine it we’ve undertaken in the past two years has been transformative. We’ve discovered, dreamed and designed.  Now we need the destiny bit.

If the missing millions turn up and vote we’ll win.

As Paul Mason writes today (‘Something incredible is happening in Scotland’) predicting a a Podemos-style left emerging post-Yes: “Independence has become a narrative of the people against big government; about an energised Scottish street, bar and nightclub versus the sleazy elite of official politics.”






Comments (20)

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  1. Paul Carline says:

    An important piece with much to think about and inspire. Just a couple of caveats. We should be careful not to make a blanket endorsement of the Nordic countries – or of Borgen! Denmark has become increasingly militaristic and Sweden’s behaviour in respect of Julian Assange leaves a lot to be desired.

    I enjoyed Borgen enormously – until the episode in which her opposition to buying more fighter jets crumbles in the face of an emotional appeal in a letter from a dead soldier not to abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan to the untender mercies of the Taliban (I may have got the details a little wrong but the storyline was more or less that). The dishonesty of supposed “humanitarian intervention” has been exposed far too many times for it to be presented in detail here (think of the estimated 30,000 Libyans we helped to murder cf. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/26/libya-war-saving-lives-catastrophic-failure).

    On 31 August the Danish parliament approved a “military contribution” to the renewed intervention by the West. All the Nordic countries have experienced a swing to the right in politics.

    1. Abulhaq says:

      Scandinavian states have hidden histories of eugenics, enforced sterilisation, racism and recently, less hidden, neo-fascism. Some Scandi-Noir is far from entertaining.

      1. Michael says:

        These are hardly hidden, we all know about them after all. The Nordic countries aren’t perfect, anyone who has lived or worked in one of them knows that but they ‘function’ in a way Scotland doesn’t. I mean that at a very basic level the Nordic countries work, homes are well insulated and heated, public space is clean and pleasant to spend time in and so on. At this very low level the Nordic countries provide an example of how we might improve our daily lives. But there is another way in which we can learn from the Nordic countries and that is in the way that people living there feel that the place they live belongs to them. That’s a cultural issue but it has all kinds of practical implications in terms of everything from how people behave in public spaces to the relationship they have with the ‘countryside’ and nature. Imagining Scotland in Nordic terms is part of a process of recreating our country. It’s not about finding all the answers but wondering if there might be places where we can find them.

    2. bellacaledonia says:

      Yeah – thanks – I take your point but I didn’t mean to suggest that Denmark was a model to follow in the real world just that the dramatised version gave people a window into imagining Scotland as a functioning democracy, but that also, this would be warts and all.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        Nato’s Rasmussen rather makes the point about the other side of “Nordic”.

  2. yerkitbreeks says:

    You are correct in emphasising the Cultural aspect. This is why I think the NO campaign have hijacked the term “British” ( as in British or Scottish ). Scots will forever be British until the country cracks off and floats into the N Atlantic, just as Norway didn’t stop being Scandinavian when it split from Sweden.

    It is the Institutional and Constitutional aspects of the separation that should exercise us.

  3. Abulhaq says:

    British? just think about the sinister history of this term. Do you honestly wish to retain it? After independence is it not redundant? Simply a relic of a socio-political type we have outgrown and ought to discard?

    1. “British” does not need to have a “sinister history”. It has as many neutral or positive connotations as any other term. There is the abstract geological idea of the Island of Britain, and indeed the old idea of the “British Isles” which includes Britain, Ireland and the other nearby islands. The name Britain is much older than any other name for this place (going right back to the ancient Greeks).

      The political use of “Britain” are more complex; there was a time when it meant “not English”, so Welsh, Scots, etc. could see themselves as the British, resisting English domination.

      Scotland is part of Britain, as it is part of Europe, or of the World. But we no more need a British state than we need a European state, or a World state. Britain is not a nation, Europe is not a nation. Scotland is.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        I get your point about the ancient usage but we are not living in the past. British is a term carrying a fair weight of baggage and will continue to do so as long as the old régime subsists at Westminster. In stamping our mark on our future we ought not to be too squeamish about redefining ourselves. Much prefer European anyway.

  4. Dan Huil says:

    When “Scottish” Labour deliberately set out to do the Tories’ dirty work by spreading lies and disorder in the desperate hope to save the union, and their jobs, it’s no surprise to see the people of Scotland, especially those who traditionally vote Labour, rise up and reject such unionist deceit. The people of Scotland won’t be played for fools, no matter how much they are derided and abused by the British nationalist media.
    When the people vote Yes it will be the proudest moment in Scottish history.

  5. They should be called ‘THE NO-HOPE CAMPAIGN’.And after the 18th we can show the world what Scotland can make of our own future.

  6. Malcolm says:

    Throughout the world, ‘British’ is associated with British imperialism and colonialism.

    No-one is interested in the geography of Britain or the finer defintion of ‘British’.

    No-one talks about Ireland being part of the ‘British Isles’. Everyone talks of Ireland as an INDEPENDENT country.

    Independent Scotland will NOT be part of the ‘Britain’ that is recognised in the world.

    Those who want to remain ‘British’ can keep their British passports and tell the world they are ‘British’. That is fine. But they will look like utter idiots if they are asked to clarify and have to admit they are from Scotland.

    As it is, most Scots are happy to call themselves Scots when abroad even when Scotland is part of that ‘Britain’.

    Once independent, why would we want to associate ourselves with ‘Britain’, a country which is not liked much in many parts of the world?

  7. Malcolm says:

    The Radical Independence Campaign has done a magnificent job in reaching people who have been ignored and taken for granted for decades.

    The key to winning this referendum will be to make sure that these people come out to cast a Yes vote. No effort should be spared in making sure that this happens.

    I would also like these people to be the first ones to benefit from independence. Equality must be achieved from the bottom up. The ‘trickle down’ effect has failed miserably.

    1. Clootie says:

      Trickle down does not work. It must be a step change followed by steady measurable change.
      I am convinced we can do this. I know we should do it.

      The UK path is only going to lead to greater and greater inequality.

    2. Illy says:

      I’m going to get into this with far more detail and emphasis after we win on the 18th, but for sorting out the poor, there are two numbers that need to be decided, which can then be put to good use:

      The minimum amount of money needed to live in adequate comfort and security for a year.
      What the highest percentage tax rate people would be comfortable with.

      Then the amount you tax someone is:

      (Their pay for the year) x (maximum tax rate) – (living wage)

      And then you scrap the jobcenters, “unemployment benefit” and you either personalise the “living wage” part of the calculation, or maintain disability allowances, etc… depending on which requires less administrative overhead.

      I would also be up for setting all government jobs’ pay (including MSPs’ pay and all employees of companies employed by the government (and all employees of companies employed by those companies, and so on…)) to multiples of the living wage (1.5x to 3x is probably about the right range, but that’s just a guess), and then fixing the multiples, leaving the only way for MSPs to give themselves a pay rise as raising the living wage.

      Then again, I’m up for renationalising everything Thatcher and her cronies sold off (buses, trains, mail, electrics, gas, phones…)

  8. Michael says:

    Great article, Mike, lots to think about.

    1. bellacaledonia says:


  9. James Dow A voice from the diaspora says:

    I was removed from Scotland as a boy of seven via emigration to Australia in 1952. For all of the time since I have never thought off or referred to myself as anything other than Scottish. Even as a boy of seven I realised I had won the birth lottery of life and had no requirement for another contrived political identity,

    1. Pam McMahon says:

      Deep admiration and respect for your post. You are 100% correct and, weel spake.

  10. Douglas Robertson says:

    An interesting and though provoking piece Mike.

    In response to that came across this publication recently, researched and published by Nordregio, is an international research centre for regional development and planning which covers all Nordic Countries. https://nordregio.org/.

    Thought this is interesting because it’s a report for the Baltic Region, not just one country. So this is a report detaiing shared ambitions. Nordic baseline ambitions are to deliver to all citizens universality, inclusion and equality. That, in some way, is an equivalent to the Scottish Government’s Scottish Performance Framework (though I am not sure people will have ever heard of that document).

    However, there is a significant difference. One is the ambition of government, and, secondly, what is expected of it by citizens. Understandings about the role played by the State differs, from ours, as does the position, role and place of public services in society. A central feature here is seeking to adhere to broad income equality. By contrast the UK has experienced 40 years of privatisation, which has altered the nature and function of the State in such matters, so government and governance and the role played by the State differs markedly. Broad agreed ambitions of universality, inclusion and equality feed into the Baltic nations developing wellbeing policy approaches. Scotland adopts some words, the easy rhetoric, but has lost and forgotten the function and purpose of government, and that of public services.


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