Saturday 6 December 2014

The social media campaign must start now

When I started at my college, there was one telephone in a glass case that I used once a week or so to call my parents. The easiest way to contact someone else was to leave a message in their pigeon hole. If I wanted to meet a friend from Oxford I’d write a letter saying we should meet outside the British Museum at ten o’clock on Wednesday. There were no last minute texts saying I’m going to be late. You turned up on time.
Much about the modern world still seems strange to me. I have a mobile phone, but it’s in my bag switched off. I didn’t have a Facebook, or Twitter account until the Scottish independence campaign began. I learned by doing. I’m still learning.

Back in 2012, or a little earlier, I began to really worry about the independence referendum. I started commenting on some of the articles in the Daily Telegraph. I tried various ways of writing, but it didn’t matter what I did. These comment threads were already dominated by nationalists. Everywhere I went was the same. Someone would write an article and within a very short time word would go out and the whole page would be dominated by independence supporters. This is what worried me. Where were our guys? The nationalists had a never ending supply of people ready to fight online. While for the most part we got on with our lives as if there were no threat to our country.

I started writing blogs, but didn’t really understand what I was doing. Almost literally no-one read what I was writing. My reader statistics were not significant. It turned out sometime later that Google wasn’t even aware of my existence. So I learned that lesson and began reading up on what was necessary to promote my writing. I was reluctant to join Twitter. Like everyone else I said something like “How can you write anything significant in 140 characters?” I thought Facebook was for teenagers. I didn’t really get social media. I still don’t.

For the first year or so on Twitter, I would only tweet about my blog. I had about 100 followers. The number of people who read what I wrote depended quite literally on whether someone with a lot of followers retweeted me or not. I get a bit embarrassed being pushy so I set myself a sort of rule. I would tweet about my blog maybe four times. If people retweeted, I would get a hundred or so readers, if they didn’t, I’d get next to none. It’s frustrating writing and not being read. It takes a lot of effort to write a blog every week. The only thing that makes it worthwhile is that other people take the trouble to read. I learned to be so grateful to the people who did retweet me. I received encouragement too. People were kind enough to leave comments or tweet about my blog unasked. I learned patience too. When you write, you must build an audience. If you write well, people will come back to read again. Some of my early blogs were ill-thought out and poorly written. I learned to write better. Now that I’m moving into writing fiction I’m still learning. That’s what’s great about writing, trying to get across ideas clearly in such a way that people want to continue reading.

With a few months to go until the referendum I changed tactics. I still wrote blogs, but I tweeted much, much more. There’s a technique for writing on Twitter. There are tweets that work and there are those that don’t. It really helped my style to be limited to these little aphorisms. As the campaign grew in intensity I gained followers just as I began to follow more. Anyone sensible who retweets or comments gets a follow. Once I got to two or three thousand followers I found it impossible to read more than a random fraction of tweets. Now I only really read my timeline. What I learned was don’t get into long futile arguments with people who won’t change their mind. Now I respond once or twice and move on. Long threads with strings of names and hardly any room to comment are without purpose.

I’m still learning about social media and blogging, but I know we have to do things better. I honestly thought that the campaign would end one way or the other in September, but it hasn’t. We have another fight on our hands. It may be that this fight will last all of our lives. The Smith Commission could help things, especially if devolution is made more equal across the UK. On the other hand it may make matters worse. The nationalists just want to make little steps towards independence. Are we helping them or hindering them? Only time will tell. There’s nothing wrong with devolution as long as it is done coherently and as long as there is equally a movement to unify the country. Politicians should be accountable and the best way to make them so is to bring them as close to local people as possible. Above all we must be able to kick out those who do a poor job, which can only happen if we cease voting tribally. What we know already though is that the nationalists will only ever be happy with independence. Smith will not appease them. When did appeasement ever work? Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a task. We have to start campaigning again and we have to mobilise the pro UK majority. There is a majority.  Never forget we won in September.

There is only one sensible tactic for No voters at the General Election. Like everyone I have my own views about party politics, but it’s far, far more important to me that Scotland remains in the UK than that either Labour or the Conservatives form the next UK government.  The General election matters, but what is five years of a government I disagree with compared to losing my country? The only way we can limit the number of SNP seats is by working together just as we did during the independence campaign. Whichever party has the best chance of defeating the SNP in any particular constituency must have the support of all No voters. The task however is to determine this accurately, not simply to rely on the last General election. If we do this cleverly we can use our 55.3% majority to defeat the SNP’s 44.7% minority. In theory this could limit them to seats in Glasgow and Dundee. Of course this will not happen. But a tactical voting campaign will limit the number of seats the SNP gain.  It will also maximise the support for Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. It’s in everyone’s interest for Better together to continue informally cooperating. Don’t let anyone tell you this sort of campaign is illegitimate. After all previously we ganged up on the Tories. But they never tried to break up my country. All we are doing is making the SNP the new nasty party.

How do we get the message across? By social media of course. But we must do it better. In war it is important to learn from what your enemy does well. In every war there are new tactics, e.g. Blitzkrieg. When you imitate them it hardly means you are expressing support for the enemy. Our opponents do social media much better than we do. Think of Wings and Bela. Here are two sites where nationalists are able to gather together, write and comment. Of course we do not agree with what is written in these sites, it is largely propaganda, nor indeed with the people who write them, but an astonishing number of independence supporters read these blogs. Over time I have built a pretty reasonable audience, but it is as nothing compared to the number of readers Wings gets.

The problem goes back to the beginning. The nationalists care more than we do. They were campaigning in huge numbers when there were hardly any Pro UK people online. After the referendum our supporters relaxed and said job well done. They went back to their lives and became indifferent again. The nationalists kept on fighting. How many UK supporters would come to a rally organised to protect the Union? We’d be lucky to get 100. They can get 10,000 at the drop of a hat. How many of us would turn up for a march or a demonstration? Almost none. They just need to send a message on social media and they can get as many as they want. If Wings wants to publish a little book he just has to ask and the money pours in. They are more committed than we are. It’s for this reason that they have grown in strength despite defeat, while we have weakened.

There are some excellent pro UK blogs, but wouldn’t it be great if we were all gathered together in one place and it was properly promoted? I would certainly contribute. I would set one up, but I simply lack the skills to do so. I can’t even send a text message. I suspect anyway that if such a site were going to happen, it would already have happened. But what we can do is share what we write much more than we do. It costs nothing to retweet. By all means favourite, but only retweets will build an audience. It also costs nothing to tell someone else on social media about an article you’ve seen. We must be generous in the way we support each other. That’s not to say we are always aware. Twitter passes in a flash. I’m sure there are good blogs that I don’t know about. Please share with me and I’ll tweet about them all I can.

The next few months are crucial. The SNP had momentum with two weeks to go before the referendum, but we turned it around. We turned it around by ordinary people making an extraordinary effort and by getting our message across to people who didn’t care about politics. We must overcome that indifference once again and we must get through to the same people who turned out in their droves to save the UK. I am so grateful for the support I have received. Without you I would still be writing only for myself. Your retweets made all the difference. Sharing is the way we can turn things around. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.