Beyond gallus warriors and heroic defeats. Let’s just win this time

1779836_619054791505457_1012243660_nAre you ready to hear the unimaginable story, in which we allow ourselves to win? Jonathan Rowson is.

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.


Comments (27)

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  1. Mike Robertson says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the word ‘win’. Getting independence may not feel like winning for many years to come once we are fully independent. For many todays news of the pound dropping and shares dropping may even be a bit too much of a reality check. We must be certain we’re ready for the road ahead, for all the bumps and bruises, the next few days will tell us just how many are.

  2. Iain says:

    Excellent points, Jonathan, in particular, “With hindsight, partly because I was Scottish, I simply didn’t have the requisite confidence.”

  3. Optimistic Till I Die says:

    I don’t like the word unimaginable in the last line. Winning is imaginable all right and it’s coming.

    I left Scotland when I was 19 in 1964. Since them, when possible, I managed to work in Scotland. Over the years I have perceived a transformation in the national psyche. Scots in general are now are as confident as any group of citizens in the world, artists way beyond that. The goal of having our own government again is within our grasp and that is the only goal that matters for the next ten days. Losing isn’t an option; it isn’t even worth considering. There is only winning. So, keep your eyes on the prize knowing that knowledge is the most powerful tool at our disposal, Keep plugging away at the don’t knows, the uncertain, the anxious (but reassure them) and they will be with you once they have a full array of facts at their disposal.

    As for the Quebec referendum, one should also remember that very few of the promises made prior to the vote were kept afterwards. And Scots are of course already being offered promises about what? More promises at some time in the future that, in fact, might be illegal according to the Edinburgh Agreement.

    If you fall for that one, shame on you.

    Think about it this way. If someone told you they would give you a winning lottery ticket if you voted for them but would only hand it over when it suited them, and, in addition, they had to discuss the matter with a number of argumentative people, each saying they had a claim on the ticket, would you give them your money? I doubt it.

    1. “I don’t like the word unimaginable in the last line. Winning is imaginable all right and it’s coming.”

      It’s not the idea of winning which Jonathan is saying is unimaginable, it’s the idea of us allowing ourselves to win. Shedding that instinct we seem to have of making sure we don’t get above our station, to avoid the disappointment that comes from losing by telling ourselves that it’s inevitable.

      Like the difference between Scotland under Craig Levein and Scotland under Gordon Strachan, perhaps?

  4. Gilly Fraser says:

    I think this is a very timely and beautifully argued article. It’s exactly now – with the winning post in sight – that we most need to be reminded of the need to stay strong. To be reassured, to be convinced all over again if necessary. There will be plenty of wobblers – plenty who will say ‘Aye, it’s a lovely dream, but can we really do it? Can we really let go of England’s hand and walk alone?’ The answer – of course – is YES we can. But well done Jonathan for being absolutely spot on with this analysis.

  5. Dennis says:

    I am thrilled and excited for all of Scotland. My grandfather left his homeland, the Orkneys, as a young man and settled in Canada. All of my ancestors are from Scotland, Ireland and England and all left there to escape the domination that made life difficult. Oddly, the English ancestor escaped the choke-hold of his rich father, go figure. They all made their way here, but one knew where their hearts were and where they wished they could have lived their lives.
    One day all of Ireland will be re-united and free but this is Scotland’s time. Unlike a few of the UK’s “colonies”, Scotland is in line for a bloodless separation and one that is long long overdue. The spirits of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and the countless braves Scottish who gave their lives in their quest to be free, watch you all now. Do not disappoint your ancestors, do not be of weak heart, do not fear the “what ifs”, do not heed the empty promises if you will just slip your necks back into their yoke, act now to free Scotland forever. Scottish rule for Scottish people at long long last and forever more. I am with you and I curse the foibles of fate that has made me a descendant away from Scotland and unable to cast a vote for Scottish freedom. Believe in yourselves and your ability to self-rule and snatch that opportunity. No challenge can be too great for the Scottish, and there has been no better time to prove it.

  6. dg299 says:

    To use an expression from my native New York, “Now THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ABOUT!”
    Yes, yes, YES!
    It is time to set aside “The Cringe,” and believe: Believe that a better Scotland can be built by its own people, that Scotland can and should be a shining example of what an egalitarian, democratic society can be.

    Do it! Not a single seed of doubt – believe and make it happen! This is Scotland’s time, Scotland’s big chance: SEIZE IT!

    Saor Alba!

  7. Haivers says:

    Great contribution from Jonathan. It is indeed all about a winning mentality.

    What’s happened over the last few weeks is that the Yes campaign has begun to look like a winner. In any context, once you’ve crossed that line (from being seen as a definite loser to appearing to have a chance of winning) then you know you’re on a roll. (Strachan’s Scotland comes to mind . . . ) It’s far more important than the actual content of the arguments you put forward.

    Equally, once you begin to look like losing, you’ve got a real problem. For the No campaign, the desperate, last minute promises of more devolved powers may simply reinforce the appearance of panic. Nobody likes backing a loser.

    The crucial battle is about the undecideds. On the day they’re going to vote for the side they think looks more likely to win.

  8. Rory Borealis says:

    That’s why we will win. We have it and they don’t. A more mean-spirited bunch you never met and they know their time is past.Up the creek with no moral compass and they are very aware that they have nobody to turn to.

  9. Out canvassing today and targeting people who had declared themselves “undecided” a week or two ago. It was truly heart-warming to see person after person peeping round their door and shyly admitting they had made up their mind and were going to vote “Yes”.

  10. Morag Eyrie says:

    This really resonates with me. It unpacks the sense of unease I feel when I hear people start to say: “regardless of the outcome…”. Very, very interesting perspective. I say this as a New Zealander who grew up in a culture where we expect to win despite our small size; I see and hurt for the Scottish cringe and lack of confidence frequently. I think we are on the way though; I got that feeling from how Scotland played against Germany last night and how folk responded. Even though they didn’t win there was a sense that they could. It felt different from the usual somehow.

  11. Coinneach mac Raibeart says:

    I’m more worried about overconfidence and loose discipline in the final days.

    1. No, get that out of your head. That’s exactly the kind of thing Jonathan’s talking about in the article.

      We’re going to win, and we’re going to do it because we’re going to work harder and longer than the No campaign.

      1. Illy says:

        Agreed, there’s so many ways to express this, but it’s all about internalising the fact that you’re going to win, so your hindbrain doesn’t trip you up.

        Famous movie quote (from memory, so probably not exact):
        L: “Alright, I’ll try”

        Y: “”

        L: “I, I don’t believe it!”
        Y: “And *that* is why you fail.”

        Or, for something more recent: “Live the change you want to see”.

        We can’t be overconfident, because we *are* going to win this. Get that into your head and act like it.

        But don’t stop working for it, we’re in the final lap, 100 yards ahead and accellerating, no reason to stop for a nap under a nice shady tree.

      2. Illy says:

        I need to remember that bella parses out angle brackets…

        L: “Alright, I’ll try”
        [L tries, and fails]
        Y: “[sigh]”
        [Y does]
        L: “I, I don’t believe it!”
        Y: “And *that* is why you fail.”

      3. I’m obviously missing something here. Am I focusing too much on the technical process of the campaign? Are you saying that there is some form of communication with the electorate at an emotional level that we must all embrace? Has something just gone over my head?

      4. Illy says:

        It’s probably gone right over your head (no offence)

        I’ll see if I can find some other way to express it.

      5. Illy says:

        Okay, I’m going to have another try here:

        First off, *you* are a part of the electorate. Don’t forget that.

        This isn’t so much about the details of how you interact with people you are trying to convince, but rather about your own headspace.

        There’s a *lot* of matrial arts liturature which fails to do a good job expressing this clearly, hence my automatic fallback to idioms and quotes. So I’m not going to do a good job here (if I could, I should really be writing a replacement for 5 Spheres or AoW)

        (I went digging through 5 Spheres for what Musashi calls this, but it’s never spelled out there, rather it permiates a lot of what he says)

        I’m going to use a martial arts metaphor, because that’s the easiest way I have to explain this:

        1) If you are trying not to lose, then you aren’t trying to win. So you will defend yourself, but never beat the other side until you’re too tired to continue defending yourself, then you will lose.
        2) If you are *trying* to win, then you aren’t expecting to win, so your hindbrain will be telling you that you aren’t going to win, which slows you down, because you have to fight your hindbrain as well as your opponent. But at least you have a chance of winning.
        3) If you *know* that you’ll win, then confidence comes naturally, and your hindbrain won’t be arguing with you when you try to attack, telling you that it won’t work.

        We’re talking about moving from 2) to 3).

        You could consider this a form of self-hypnosis if you want. But it works better than you’d think.

        (Also, I just noticed that the No campaign has been “trying not to lose”, and the Yes campaign has been “trying to win” for the last few years)

      6. I think I see it now. The reason I didn’t see it before is because I think I am already in that frame of mind.

  12. Fay Kennedy. says:

    As another expat from Australia I am quietly confident that the time is nigh. I felt it since I stepped off the plane in Glasgow just two weeks ago. This is a different place from what I left some fifty years ago. The people of this lovely land are ready for a new chapter in their history and what a time to be here. Can’t wait to celebrate on the 19th. Sept.Yes it’s time for a new beginning.

    1. wanvote says:

      Welcome Home, Fay. Have read your comments (and all the others of course) on Bella for a long time now. ‘Yes it’s time for a new beginning’ – that says it all!

  13. Alex Buchan says:

    Truly excellent article!! To tune into the national mood I’ve found this guardian/witness site full of first hand accounts more inspirational than anything else.

  14. Muscleguy says:

    Ah Yes, isn’t just those listed as undecided on my canvass sheets who are moving to YES, some of those listed as No are too. More than one person has told me variants on ‘I’ve been Labour all my life, but never again’. People are waking up from a hopeful but deeply frustrating dream of Labour and when they do they are angry and looking to punish them. People like that are not going back to Labour, in whatever form, any time soon either.

    On Sunday my No voting, closed minded, won’t discuss it wife picked up a Wee Blue Book from the table and leafed through it muttering ‘maybe, maybe, maybe’ under her breath. I didn’t dare breathe. Softly, softly does it. One WBB will have to remain at home for what I suspect is now a 3 or a 4 and skirting with the idea of moving. If we can win my wife, we can win anyone.

  15. “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.’ ”

    Thanks for this. It really resonates with me at the moment, especially this statement above. There is something of a responsibility about “winning”, and success in any way in fact. I’ve often stumbled in life from not seeing things through. You have success, then immediately go into a kind of fear driven stasis that it was just an accident, a one off, you can’t repeat it on demand, what if you fail the next time and let someone down?

    I’ve felt exactly this after the poll shift. Been out delivering leaflets, converting people and feeling, if we win this, the responsibility for success rests on our shoulders, as does responsibility for people around us we converted or who voted the other way. By contrast if no wins, anything and everything bad that happens can then be laid at their door. There’s something more re-assuring about being able to not take responsibility and blame someone else.

    Both those mindsets – preferring not to have the responsibility but be able to blame, and fear of success – are ones we all need, individually and as a country, to escape from. Both are wholly negative and lead to failure.

  16. harshbutfair says:

    There’s too much soul searching and hand wringing on this site. Just walk into the polling booth and put your cross next to YES. Remember Grasshopper your destiny lies down whichever path you choose.

  17. lowlander says:

    No more of being ‘half in love with failure’ for Scotland. Scotland is divorcing failure.

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