A talk given by Keith Howell at the "If Scotland" conference at University of Stirling 24th August’14
My thanks to the organisers for giving me the opportunity to speak here today. As you are all being good enough to listen to me for the next 20 minutes, it is only fair to let you know a couple of things about me by way of a short confession. Firstly, I should be clear, that I might very well be deluded. At least that is my polite version of what ‘cybernats’ have said about me online. Their language was a little more colourful of course, but ‘deluded’ is I think the overall gist of it.
Also, I have noticed how people on both sides of the debate have felt it important to stress how much they believe in Scotland. So, it is perhaps only fair that I make clear to you what I don’t believe in, about Scotland.
During my 23 years in Scotland I have got to know some parts of it and some of its people quite well. I have come across some of our most successful business people seeing what motivates and drives them, and worked with brilliant innovators starting up new businesses.
In the field of social care, and public sector provision, I have had the good fortune to have an insight into the work of those dedicated to helping the socially excluded and to assisting people of all ages make the most of their lives. Along the way, I have met some of that army of people who day in day out, across Scotland, dedicate their lives to supporting others, without any thought of recognition. And, I have had reason from time to time, to see into the shadows, those dark places of Scotland that we would all rather did not exist. There I have met people whose lives have spiralled out of control into homelessness, drugs and worse.
I do have a great belief in Scotland and its people, from its most celebrated to its most vulnerable. I have a great faith in what through the best of themselves, all of them can achieve. And yes despite being on the ‘No’ side of the debate, I do believe that an independent Scotland could not only survive, but that it would, in all likelihood, ultimately go on to thrive. But, so that we are clear, I do not, nor will I ever, place Scotland and its people above any others. So, for me, Scotland and its people are not better than for example the people of… Chile, Cyprus and Tibet. Those particular countries and peoples happen to mean something very special to me, just as Scotland does. Equally though, I could have picked any other 3 countries at random and the point for me would still be equally valid. You’ll notice I chose not to quote England, Wales and N Ireland – I could have done, but that was not the particular point I was making. I am very biased on this. I am against nationalism and will be roused out of my chair to speak whenever I hear the suggestion that a country and its people are to consider themselves better than others simply because of where and who they are, or indeed that separating people will in some way add to the potential of anyone.
So, I might be deluded, and it might appear to some that I don’t believe in Scotland as much as they do.
Enough of confession, lets get into the heart of this…
It is fair to say that I stumbled into social media and internet campaigning. In November last year the Scotland’s Future White Paper was published. After reading it I decided I had no choice but to speak out. For me the publication of that document confirmed that the SNP Government would stop at nothing to achieve their goal, up to and including setting out to mislead their own people. I had initially thought to place ads in traditional media along with perhaps some very modest online presence to back it up. I sought some advice and tried to progress matters and hit a string of problems – legal advisers wouldn’t – advise that is, through fear of being seen to take sides, national press were wary of the proposed content of my ads and one of my roles, a job that I loved in the public sector, looked like it might be a casualty of what I planned.
I received some stark warnings – my reputation might be ruined if I spoke out like this, or I might not survive the campaign if I acted in such a provocative way, particularly with this accent. As you can see, so far it has not been quite as bad as predicted. I am still alive and kicking. I did get a degree of abuse and some intimidation. One cheery soul spoke of how my heart should be full of fear, and while I concluded he was not a fan, I was hopeful it was just words.
As for my reputation, well overall I have had some kind praise and some strident abuse, but I have concluded that it is best not to take either too seriously, to ensure that I am not diverted from my central purpose. Which is: to shine a light on the way the Scottish Government have acted improperly, particularly in production of the White paper; to engage in the Referendum debate not to change how anyone votes but to seek to ensure that everyone is aware how their own Scottish Government has sought to mislead them; and finally to oppose nationalism.
In the event, I could not get an ad published, so I launched my website nupateer.com on the 6th March this year resigning from my role in the public sector on the same day. Because of the way that I am pursuing not only the Scottish Government but also senior Civil Servants, in regards to the White paper, I am under no illusions that I will ever be able to work again in the public sector. No doubt there are some who judge that as no particular loss.
It is true to say that I am not comfortable with social media. While it remains in its present form I will probably never learn to embrace it with any degree of enthusiasm. I find speaking in a room full of ‘shouty’ people pretty difficult. If you are quietly spoken and an introvert, then most of the time you have no chance. If on those rare occasions when there is a lull in enough conversations at the same time and the room goes inexplicably quiet for a moment, you do have a chance, but you had better make sure you have something significant to say, and that you find a way to say it that catches people’s imagination.
There are of course very effective ‘shouty’ speakers on both sides of the debate. A couple of stand-out examples are Tommy Sheridan on the Yes side and George Galloway on the No side. It doesn’t matter if you do not agree with them, or even like them, it is very difficult not to listen to them when they are speaking out. It is not just a question of volume, although they are pretty loud, they also bring a passion and a way with language and a feel for the mood of
their audience that can be quite captivating.
Sadly, I think a lot of people who use social media to explain their thoughts on the independence referendum, are bashing away at their keyboards trying to reproduce the impact of a Tommy or a George. As if the harder they hit the keys, and the faster they type, the louder it will come out at the other end. But of course its silent. No one necessarily hears anything. They are just digital words. So then they get frustrated and turn up the dial by using more forceful language, or by setting out to ridicule or abuse those who they do not agree with. It can work up to a point, but more often than not, abuse and intimidation are as corrosive in the digital online world, as when used face to face.
At the extreme, it is totally shameful and to an extent reflects badly on us all. Take for example the abuse regularly meted out online to women who try to engage with the debate. Nicola Sturgeon has had to put up with this throughout the campaign, and J K Rowling got a torrent of abuse when she decided to speak out. The senseless and extreme abuse aimed at women in particular online is truly disgraceful. For me that whole side of social media has yet to prove that it has the maturity to be taken seriously. Anyway I’m effectively a social media virgin so what do I know? Probably not very much.
Moving on. Is everything Alex Salmond’s fault? Well as regards social media, absolutely no. There are some things I would have liked him to have been more forthright about and quicker to condemn but above all else he is a politician and he knows there are elements of his support that he is best keeping on the right side of. I do believe that Alex Salmond has had a very significant influence on the tone of the debate, and much as it is tempting for me to want to blame him for some of the more negative things I have seen and heard, in truth that is a bit of a stretch. Basically, all involved in this debate need to take personal responsibility for their particular contributions.
There are some things that I think Alex Salmond can take at least some of the blame for though. The big tactical games and manoeuvers of this campaign. That will come as no surprise to our First Minister because he has consciously stoked up and inspired a number of them. These have been calculations, traps set for his opponents that they have at times waded into without thinking.
Equally, on some issues, opponents have concluded they can turn this posturing in their own favour. The currency issue is an example of that, and it is still not clear who will win that particular game. But it is a game you see and not one with any clear rules. When you give an opinion in this debate but choose to speak not only for your own side, but also to put words into the mouths of your opponents, to tell them what is best for them, how they should think – you know full well that you are trying to provoke a response. At least if you are as calculated an operator as Alex Salmond you do.
So what have I been trying to do with my nupateer.com campaigning website? For the first few weeks of its existence, its reach was minimal. I concluded that I had to use traditional media to shine a light on my core messages. Finally, I did get a newspaper to agree to carry an ad and on the 26th March the Scottish editions of Metro carried an advert from me entitled ‘A Different View’. One of a series of 10 ads carried on my website. Completely coincidently, Wings over Scotland were also trying to place posters on the Glasgow subway that day. The Board of the subway decided to take the posters down and then I suddenly found myself facing a mini tsunami of abuse and intimidation. Copies of the Metro newspaper with my ad in it had been left by commuters on seats on the subway, and while this has nothing to do with the subway authority, the cybernats were nevertheless raging, apparently somehow convinced that Glasgow Subway had favoured me over them.
It was a slightly surreal 48 hours or so in which I seemed suddenly to have more enemies than I could possibly have imagined. For a short time I had to face racist abuse, veiled threats and crazy conspiracy theories. One cybernat tracked the hosting of my website to the USA concluded I might be a front for the CIA, others speculated that my history of directorships meant I was probably in the super rich bracket even though in reality many of those directorships were unpaid across the private, public and voluntary sectors. My home attracted a lot of attention, with my chalet style house soon being described in terms that sounded more like Downton Abbey. Perhaps most distressing was that not just my address but details of how to find my house were circulated on Wings over Scotland and across social media. It was difficult to put a positive purpose behind that so my wife and I had a couple of sleepless nights wondering about what might happen. Ultimately I had to get Wings over Scotland to take some material off their site – they had addresses of previous houses I had lived in for example, as well as some of our neighbours and I could not stand the thought of other people being hassled in that way. Ultimately the cybernats got bored and moved on. One great advantage of online media being that the sheer volume of new material being added quickly buries things that you might prefer were not there.
Meanwhile, I have been waging a largely separate campaign off-line – through direct contact with various public agencies, the civil service and the First Minister, pursuing my complaint against the Scottish Government in relation to the White Paper. Whether that will run to a proper conclusion or simply run out of steam is not yet clear. So far, no one has been prepared to directly address the specific details of my complaint. The establishment does not like to contemplate wrong doing at the top because it can raise uncomfortable questions about much that we assume should be beyond reproach.
nupateer.com only contains material that I am solely responsible for. I have had some technical help in setting up the site and its content, but I had to ensure that those involved were insulated from me to avoid them being targeted by nationalists. Equally, I have advised my family and friends to be careful to not mention their link to me online to avoid their facebook pages attracting unhealthy interest and spoiling their private use of social media.
So whatever is on nupateer is down to me alone. I don’t allow others comments on the site because I could not sleep at night knowing people from either side might be using it for abuse and intimidation.
Nupateer is a campaigning site, but it is genuinely not trying to tell people how to vote in the referendum. I am happy if everyone here for example votes Yes on the 18th September as long as you do so in full knowledge that the Scottish Government has set out to mislead you, and understand what it is that some people like me are concerned about, when they see the promotion of nationalism’s divisive and insular agenda here in Scotland.
Now after some months on of being actively involved in the campaign, I do take some comfort from many new friends and supporters I have found online. I have really appreciated how some have helped me get some exposure in social media that I would otherwise have failed to do. Most of these people I have never met, but they share a common belief in the importance of standing up for what they believe in, no matter that there are those determined to try to shout them down.
So, how will the wide ranging debate about the Independence Referendum be remembered?
There are no politicians living or dead that I could contemplate following without question. However there is one whose mix of wisdom and compassion means I hold him in a level of regard that is more like reverence.
What would Gandhi think of all this? Well its rather presumptuous to even speculate of course, but I think we are on safe ground to suppose he would be hugely impressed with one aspect of the Independence Referendum. He would surely be deeply relieved to see such a campaign and debate proceeding totally peacefully. I won’t comment on what he might think of the rights and wrongs of the individual campaigns, but I do think if he got to understand what social media is about, he would see its great potential for good, its scope for reaching out to everyone, but would be rather troubled by the way it is nevertheless being misused by so many.
There is of course a lot to be said for a means of exchanging views whereby everyone can contribute and have their say. And indeed it is arguable that one of the reasons why all of this passionate debate has not deteriorated into any violence, has been because social media and the internet has provided some means of letting off steam. Nevertheless, for me, the free-for-all that social media can be, is not something that I feel reflects well on all of us. I don’t like to see divisiveness expressed again and again. I don’t like to see the over simplification of sometimes complex and subtle issues into the black and white world of the most committed campaigners, where the other side are not only wrong but responsible for pretty much all the problems and difficulties that we need to overcome.
When in 20 to 30 years time people look back at all of this online debate I think they might reflect it was a time of a great awakening of mass debate and involvement here in Scotland. But also I think some might feel that much of it was unnecessarily and excessively crude and unthinking, where the digital equivalent of shouting down and denigrating your opponents dominated. When individuals lose their own ability to temper their language, to truly think before they speak or rather post that latest gem of opinion.
And as for the losers in the vote, how will they feel when they look back? If it is the ‘No’ side of the debate that loses, they might reflect that they had thought the campaign had been about a vociferous minority seeking to impose their view on the majority, only to find at the last their opponents were in the majority after all. And if the losers are the ‘Yes’ side of the debate they might conclude that their passion for opportunity and hope have been suffocated by fear and the frustration of finding that no matter how attractive a vision of the future is painted, it can count for nought if it lacks credibility and confidence in being delivered.
Either way, I hope we can all look back and conclude that the differences between us were nothing like as significant as they might have felt in the heat of debate. I for one take no pleasure at all in finding that I seem to be at odds with the passionate and determined view of at least a large minority, or potentially an overall majority of my fellow countrymen and women.
It is worth remembering that for some the 18th September will be no choice at all. And this explains perhaps some of the exasperation we see in online exchanges. There are perhaps 2 groups of 25% of the electorate facing each other with no intention or possibility of them ever changing their minds. Most of those actively engaging with the debate seem to be in those groups. Of the other 50% some are undecided, some decided, but not very exercised about the debate, and then a remainder who are either bored or completely put off by the whole thing.
Also there have been frustrations for many arising from the dominance of tactical political debate. With politicians in turn in the eyes of some over emphasising process, policies, finance, economics and pedantic debate of statistics, with each side trying to make too much of the other side’s biggest supposed weaknesses, without sufficient consideration of the real fundamentals. For one side that is whether the underlying case for breaking up the United Kingdom has really been made. For the other it is why the opportunity for Scotland to take control of its own destiny is not an obvious choice, no matter the risks or the finer points of uncertainty.
In trying to win over the undecided, the two campaigns have sometimes had a near impossible job, as they have found people looking for absolute answers where no such answers ever existed.
The undecideds’ dilemma is that the worst aspects of each campaign, particularly online, are just about equally unpleasant, unconvincing or arrogant. While at the same time, the best of the two sides arguments when presented with an appropriate degree of passion and eloquence, can seem equally convincing if you just set aside for a moment what the other side have told you.
Ultimately, while for many on both sides of this debate, including me, there is truly only a choice of one on the 18th September, this attitude must be converted beyond the final result into a new determination to find the real opportunity for everyone.
A final thought – I really hope that whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ win on the 18th September that they win well. By which I mean two things. First that ideally the winner has a convincing majority – 55% perhaps whether it be for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – to ensure there is a clarity of decision to help what follows. And secondly, that the leaders of the winning campaign quickly reach out to everyone, with an overriding focus on reconciliation. To embrace all the people of Scotland, ensuring each of us can feel a genuine part of the future that then unfolds.