What is the secret weapon that will win Scotland’s ongoing constitutional debate? Is it the economy? Brexit? Pensions?
The answer is: none of these. The struggle over whether Scotland remains in or leaves the United Kingdom will be decided by whichever side better understands cognitive linguistics, the science of language and how it shapes the way we think without us ever realising.
The American cognitive linguist George Lakoff applied his discipline to politics and found that what influences our electoral behaviour more than economic self-interest is how a question is framed. Lakoff explained: ‘Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.’
Lakoff wrote a 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, identifying the ‘frames’ used by US Republicans to sell their ideas. For example, tax cuts were rebranded ‘tax relief’ and making it harder to sue corporations became ‘tort reform’. By framing these policies thus — and, with iron discipline, only thus — Republicans were able to change the conversation so that the news media and even some Democrats began repeating their frames.
Lakoff advised Democrats on how to resist this rhetorical capture, establishing ‘a basic principle of framing for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame — and it won’t be the frame you want’.
Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted a frame that I snuck in near the top of this column. I talked about Scotland remaining in or leaving the UK, rather than Scotland becoming an independent country. Independence is the SNP’s idea; arguing against independence only reinforces it as a respectable choice.
Think of it like free advertising: during the 1980s ‘cola wars’, Pepsi ran ads showing customers disparaging Coca-Cola or switching from Coke to Pepsi. The effect, however, was to showcase their rival’s brand while paying for the pleasure. Referring to ‘independence’, even in the most critical terms, simply echoes the SNP’s message.
Sceptics might wonder if Lakoff’s theories have any purchase in the real world. During the 2016 election, he warned the Hillary Clinton campaign to stop running attack ads drawing attention to Donald Trump’s outrageous language. All they were doing was amplifying his words over theirs and energising his voter base to turn out on election day. Clinton’s campaign managers ignored the advice.
Unionists should learn from their mistake. By framing independence as ‘leaving the UK’ or ‘Scexit’, and consistently using only these terms, Unionists put their opponents at a disadvantage. It can also influence how the media reports these matters.
At STV, where I worked during the 2014 referendum, it was decided that, although some Unionists used the term ‘separation’, we would use ‘independence’ on air and online. That was the word on the ballot paper, after all, and lots of Unionists used it too. Had pro-UK politicians stuck to ’separation’, the Press and broadcasters would have begun to replicate it alongside the SNP’s preferred term.
Nationalists understand framing much better than their opponents do and it is at the forefront of their minds as they attempt to foist another referendum on the country. Last week, Dame Sue Bruce, the Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, told Holyrood her organisation would need 12 weeks to test any potential question ‘to provide confidence and assurance to the voter and to the parliament posing the question in terms of the integrity of the process’.
While the Electoral Commission recommended a Yes/No question for the 2014 referendum, its research for the EU referendum found that ‘question wordings using “Yes” and “No” as response options may not be able to fully resolve these complex issues’. MPs, it warned, should ‘consider very carefully… the risk of a perception of bias’ in a Yes/No ballot.
In the end, the Commission recommended a Remain/Leave question, noting they ‘did not hear any substantive concerns about this question being biased or leading’.
This is giving Nationalists the fear. They want a rigged referendum and are pushing their Referendums Bill through Holyrood to that end. Under this sinister, sweeping legislation, SNP ministers — not parliament, not the Electoral Commission — would decide the question, timing and campaign period for any referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon’s constitution minister Mike Russell recently insisted that a future plebiscite use the Yes/No format, telling MSPs: ‘That question then was used up until 2014 in every opinion poll and it has been used since then in over 50 opinion polls on independence… If a question is current and is in current usage, why would you change it, it would be very confusing to change it.’
The Electoral Commission could well change its mind again and recommend sticking with Yes/No. But Nationalists don’t want to take the risk — and here’s why. When voters are asked if Scotland should be independent, they are almost evenly divided. However, when they are asked, as a recent poll did, whether Scotland should remain in the UK or leave, 59 per cent back remain and only 41 per cent want to leave.
The problem is that while one side is demanding a specific question, the other wants to leave the process up to the Commission. With wearying familiarity, the Unionist parties see the SNP trying to work the ref, tut in disapproval and sit back with their faith placed in British fair play. In a debate where only one side speaks, it’s not hard to guess who the winner will be.
This is why the Unionist parties should be as one in urging a Remain/Leave vote and should be as direct as the SNP in communicating that position to the Electoral Commission. The path of least resistance for Dame Sue would be to give the SNP what it wants; to prevent that, Unionists must make clear their expectations of question neutrality based on the Commission’s own recommendations.
While a Remain/Leave question wouldn’t guarantee a Remain win in a hypothetical referendum, it would at least ensure a level playing field. The SNP would be forced to recalibrate its strategy, though Unionists should bear in mind that the Leave campaign won the EU referendum and the SNP is at least as ruthless and devious as them.
Reframing independence also requires Unionists to come up with their own term. ‘Scexit’ is an ugly, awkward-sounding word but, if anything, that is what recommends it. ‘Independence’ conjures up images of freedom, self-determination and opportunity. Who could be against that? ‘Scexit’, on the other hand, sounds like a constipation remedy. It makes you want to increase your roughage intake.
Disparaging independence thus would irritate the Nationalists and when your opponents are angry they are liable to make mistakes. Creating a new ‘Scexit’ frame would take practice and determination but, once again, it would give the Unionist position an equal chance.
Lakoff does not recommend framing as mere cosmetic wordplay. Language transmits gut principles and if you can tap into voters’ gut principles you can frame your message accordingly. Lakoff issues a crucial reminder in this regard: ‘People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values.’
Numbers are not enough, facts are not sufficient; the GERS figures will not defeat the Scexiteers. Unionists are up against the most powerful (yet least productive) force in politics: sentiment. We harbour certain instincts about ourselves, who we are, what we have in common with those around us, what is wrong with the world, and how things could get better.
Nationalism is sentimentalism on a power trip, and so it appeals to the readiest, most shallow of feelings. It flatters our collective ego, mythologises universal values as uniquely ours, and gives us one of the most basic human needs: someone to hate.
Unionists must learn to frame their arguments better but that can only begin once they have decided what their values are and how they can be framed to appeal to the gut instincts, as well as the material interests, of the voters. Mind your language; it might just save the Union.