In the 1930s two national leaders became famed through their cutting edge use of mass media. Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt would go on to become enemies, but they shared a common understanding that direct contact with the electorate was an extremely powerful tool for spreading political ideology and securing popular support. Both men made extensive use of radio broadcasts to connect with millions of people. Remote populations who may never have heard previous leaders were suddenly able to identify with them directly. The nature of political communication was fundamentally altered.
Watching the 'Better Together' campaign in the run up to the Scottish Referendum has made me think of fusty old Lloyd-George style politicians clad in Victorian Garb, clasping ear trumpets and shouting in loud voices that this "wireless radio thing will never catch on." The 'Better Together' attempts at interacting with social media have, as one SNP politician put it, been like an iron fist trying to punch a flight of butterflies.
Seeing David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg scuttle up to Scotland to deliver their coordinated 'command and control' message made me wonder whether they're living in the last century. Like everything else in society, politics has been transformed by the Internet. Leaders can no longer order their people to believe a truth. For better or worse, the Internet gives everyone a voice. We're all broadcasters, and when a piece of information is deemed to have merit, a lone voice can spread it to millions of people via social media. Frankie Boyle has more than twice as many Twitter followers than David Cameron. Whenever he feels like it, an angry comedian can communicate directly with more people than the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition combined.
The Internet hasn't just changed who has a voice, it has also enabled people to peer behind the curtain. Theatre relies on a level of concealment to maintain the illusion, and the same used to be true of politics. When the curtain has slipped in the past, the view has often been ugly. Who can forget Gordon Brown's nasty remarks about Gillian Duffy? Political images have always been closely controlled to reinforce the cult of personality. Iron Lady. Iron Chancellor. Short Sleeve Tony. Approachable Dave. With the illusion comes a degree of insincerity, but in the past the insincerity wasn't so obvious because we were only exposed to our leaders for a few brief moments on the news, or when we read their printed comments in the papers. They were actors in a play and we rarely saw the truth that lay behind the curtain.
With 24 hour news, constant media exposure, instant tweets, live feeds, Facebook, Reddit and every other source bombarding us with a ceaseless stream of opinion, gossip, insight, and fact, it has become virtually impossible to conceal what happens behind the scenes. It's extremely difficult to hide insincerity under the glaring light of all that attention.
Whatever their flaws, politicians like Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage communicate their views with genuine passion. We're emotional creatures and whether we agree with their views or not, we cannot help but respond to such passion. The carefully controlled, massaged, bland sound bites that ooze from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband's mouths excite nothing. In their effort to offend nobody and appeal to as broad a base as possible, they spew a meaningless stream of Newspeak that simply turns people off.
Communication in the 20th Century was about exposure. It was about reach and mass. In the 21st Century, it's about connection and belief. If you can effectively connect with one person and they believe in the validity of what you've shared, they will spread your message. In future, successful politicians will need to understand how to operate delicately in the socially networked world, and, in order to inspire belief in others, they will need to clearly and genuinely believe in something themselves.
David Cameron spoke of being heartbroken at the prospect of the family of nations being broken up. As any filmmaker will attest, the fundamental rule is show, don't tell. Actions speak louder than words. If the family of nations was so important, why did Cameron, Clegg and Miliband leave it until the week before the referendum to head north? Why was Gordon Brown's timetable brought into play so late in the day? Even people who are going to vote 'No' were disappointed by the Prime Minister's complacency. He seemed to have been stirred by a Sunday Times poll result rather than any genuine concern for the people of Scotland.
I don't have any vested interest in the Scottish Referendum, but have been disappointed by the level of fear mongering. There are plenty of very successful small nations. In the event of a 'Yes' vote, there will be a long transition period in which currency and all the other practical challenges of independence can be resolved. A nation of six million people will still represent an attractive market, so Scotland will not be consigned to the Stone Age and left devoid of shops, banks, utilities and the other necessities of modern life. The Scots are not unhinged; many people in Yorkshire, Cornwall, the North West, and the West Midlands would appreciate a level of devolution. Taking infrastructure spend as an example, Londoners receive an average of £5,203 more per person per year than people in the North East of England. There is an imbalance in the country that cannot be addressed by any amount of goodwill or talk of heartbreak. It is logical that in a nation of six million people you would have a more powerful voice than you would in a nation of seventy million. And that more powerful voice is likely to lead the nation to be more responsive to your needs.
Rather than being an aberration, Scotland may prove to be a trailblazer. In the same way that it has transformed media and communication, the Internet has the potential to radically alter government. We have the tools at our disposal to hold instant national votes on important political issues. We no longer need to leave key decisions such as whether to take the country to war to a small handful of men and women, who have repeatedly proved themselves prone to peddled influence. The one-and-a-half-million people who marched against the Iraq War because they rightly foresaw the mess it created could have been empowered to vote against it. The current insidious back door privatisation of the NHS could be prevented by a population empowered with a meaningful vote. The technology exists to give us a direct say on these important national issues. The old argument that the political class is better informed than the electorate holds little water in an age where we all have access to so much information, particularly when the political class has got so many important issues so very, very wrong. There was no end to boom and bust. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There would be no peaceful and orderly transfer of power post Saddam.
The wisdom of the crowd suggests that nations would function more effectively if they used technology to empower citizens to make decisions and stopped leaving the fate of the many in the hands of the few. The future may lie in smaller, more responsive nations in which technology enables the individual to have a much louder voice. Scotland may show us the way.