Beyond gallus warriors and heroic defeats. Let’s just win this time
With ongoing momentum and infectious morale, the Yes campaign should carry on doing exactly what it’s been doing, brilliantly and positively.
But are we actually ready to win? We may want to win, but that’s different. Have we chosen it yet?
I ask because I know the temptation of the consoling narrative. I know that devil on the shoulder who will tell you that no matter what happens, you put up a good fight. I’m a chess Grandmaster, former Scottish champion (1999, 2001, 2004) and British Champion (2004-6) and I’m writing this piece because I want Yes to win, and know what it feels like to screw up a good position. More importantly, I’m writing because I know that it can be perversely tempting to do so.
Wanting to win gets you so far. It motivates you to host the meetings, to canvass, argue and persuade, and above all to earn respect as a worthy opponent. But that phase is over now. Yes is not merely a contender, but rather the favourite. The shift in relative strength and the shift in expected score call for an underlying shift in psychology.
Choosing to win means normalising the idea of victory. It’s about replacing desire with conviction. Your central motivating thought is no longer: ‘We really want this to happen, here’s hoping’ but rather: ‘This is happening because of what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’ll continue to do.’
That subtle shift of emphasis might be decisively important over the last few days.
The outcome is decided one vote at a time, but all leading campaign strategists agree that how votes are cast depend upon national mood. If you start thinking about it, that feels a bit mystical, like some sort of collective unconscious with its own agency. In practice it means voters looking and listening out for people like them among the prospective winners, seeking emotional validation for their choice. Yes is doing well on that front, but there are vulnerabilities.
You will probably have heard about what happened in Quebec in 1995, when they tried to become independent from Canada. They had the very same initial gap to overcome, built the same kind of momentum, achieved the same narrowing of the polls, led with a fortnight to go, had an even bigger lead on the day of the vote, but crashed to a painful 49.42% of the vote in the only poll that mattered.
Scotland in 2014 may be a very different story. The Yes campaign has deeper grass roots and social media plays a bigger part in the story. Still, that last minute shift in Quebec was credited mostly to the rest of the country waking up in a way that changed the national mood.
We all know that over the next few weeks that could happen here too, and though the momentum and resolve of the Yes campaign is strong, some doubts about our ultimate victory remain. Those doubts are helpful when they motivate action, but unhelpful when they undermine confidence – not least because the national mood needs to be confident on September 18th.
The challenge is that in the middle of any gruelling battle there is a psychologically safe world waiting for you; it’s a place where you congratulate yourself on how well you played, shore up your bruised but pliant ego, and get ready for the next time.
But don’t go there, please. The deep joy of actually winning is a thousand times more satisfying.
Playing chess professionally gave me some intuition for the kind of delicate zero-sum game that we are now in. I often held big advantages against the world’s elite players but rarely actually defeated them. With hindsight, partly because I was Scottish, I simply didn’t have the requisite confidence. I was too content to earn their respect and too happy to merely have the opportunity to win, both of which made for a good story in the making. So instead of steely resolve, there were wobbles. Decisive advantages were squandered, obvious moves were not made, and scalps were not taken.
Similarly, Yes campaigners know they have outplayed an adversary who often appeared unassailable. The campaign has surprised itself with its own strength, and delighted in the admiration of the world. And yet some still sense that we may not win, perhaps because, deep down, we can’t quite believe that we are ready to.
But we are ready. And Scotland is ready for a new kind of story.
We can still be passionate underdogs. We can still punch above our weight. We can still be gallus warriors. It’s just that we don’t need to lose to be any of these things.
So it’s best not to create a consolation story ready for the day after the result comes in. Don’t be too eager to say: regardless of the result, the campaign has been transformative. Don’t congratulate yourself on getting so close to winning, against the odds. And don’t get high on the thought of the other side’s fear and trembling in the eleventh hour.
If it really is Scotland’s time to be independent again, it is also time to move beyond any lingering attachment we have to heroic defeat.
On the 19th of September, I don’t want to hear about the glory of the failed Yes campaign, precisely because it feels so painfully imaginable.
Instead I am ready to hear the unimaginable story, in which we allow ourselves to win.