Politicians, PR/marketing people and journalists have at least one thing in common; they're all interested, one way or another, in telling -- indeed, selling -- a 'story'.
Of course, it goes without saying that they'll have partisan reasons for doing so. All perception is, by necessity, selective; well-told stories -- whether they're 'fictional' or 'factual' -- catch our attention by focussing on what is relevant to a particular subject and ignoring what is perceived as superfluous or distracting. At least to some degree, the stories will deliberately pander to our existing prejudices; perception shouldn't, at any time, be confused with veracity.
Successful stories also come with an effective narrative hook of some kind; a reason why the story is being told now rather than last month or next week. Anniversaries can provide useful, ready-made (if somewhat cliched) hooks to hang stories on.
Take, for example, 1 July. It was the fourth anniversary of the start of the ban on smoking within enclosed public spaces in England -- a good enough 'hook' to persuade a PR company to put out a press release trying to drum up some interest in a client which manufactures 'electronic' ciggies.
From the start of the press release, though, I was distracted by a completely unintended story. The writer referred to "the fourth anniversary of the UK smoking ban" -- and that's simply not true. Four years and a day earlier, on 30 June 2007, the smoking of cigarettes within enclosed public spaces might have been legal in England but it was already against the law across the rest of the UK -- distinct legislation by the UK's devolved administrations having come into force in Scotland (26 March 2006), Wales (2 April 2007) and Northern Ireland (30 April 2007).
So, at best, 1 July 2011 was simply the fourth anniversary of when smoking bans finally covered the whole of the UK. The way the writer had phrased it, however, and the fact that no one else seemed to have noticed this error, betrays a narrative assumption held by many people -- the stories which equate England with the UK. A dozen years' worth of political devolution still seems to have slipped by many people.
And institutions. UK Government departments and national media outlets frequently forget that many Westminster edicts only affect England; but one of the most surprising examples is the Labour Party. Yes, the political party which delivered on political devolution, as part of its policy on UK constitutional reform, has singularly failed to devolve itself. As a result, it could be said to have lost the plot, certainly in Scotland.
Last week's by-election saw Labour hold the Westminster Parliamentary seat of Inverclyde, albeit with a somewhat reduced majority. After its drubbing in the Scottish Election in May, however, this was perceived to be as close as they could get to good news. The bad news, thought, is that it's yet more evidence supporting the idea that many Scottish voters have become far more relaxed about their voting intentions. They're still prepared to vote Labour within the context of a UK General Election but, when it comes to Holyrood, they're more likely to go for Scotland's other centre-left party, the Scottish Nationalists.
The days when Labour could easily dismiss the SNP as 'Tartan Tories' are long gone; particularly under the leadership of Alex Salmond, the SNP has successfully colonised the political middle ground without losing the ability to wrap itself snuggly in the Scottish saltire.
Commentators increasingly agree that Labour's fundamental mistake at this year's Scottish election was thinking of it in terms of a referendum on the first year of the Conservative-led Coalition Government in Westminster. Most Scots were actually more interested in the Scottish election being about the bread and butter issues of Scottish governance -- the future of public services, securing jobs, economic growth, etc. Salmond has been well known to dismiss his opponents as being 'London parties', but in world-view terms, it's hard not to see his point.
The Liberal Democrats, being a federal organisation at heart, were -- at least on paper -- best placed among the UK-wide parties to adjust to this new Scottish scenario. Indeed, they distinguished between the two political spheres with some success in 2006, when LibDems determinedly took the Westminster seat of Dunfermline and West Fife from Labour while still (nominally) working in coalition with the same party in Holyrood.
However, as this May proved, the LibDem brand in Scotland was fatally torpedoed by its Westminster activities, most obviously Nick Clegg's decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Given that the Tories in Scotland have, since the 1980s, been tarred as being an 'English party' (despite them being the only political movement, during the 20th century, to gain the support of an absolute majority of the total Scottish electorate), it is hardly surprising that neither party did well on polling day.
So-called Scottish Labour, meantime, was looking to fight a Tory enemy that wasn't even on the battlefield, and the unexpected finality of their drubbing at the polls proved the folly of that decision. Now there is talk of root-and-branch restructuring of the Labour party north of the border, of there being a genuine Scottish leadership capable of developing distinctive policies that are 'made in Scotland, for Scotland'. A review group, led by shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and MSP Sarah Boyack, is expected to report by September on what needs to be done; frankly, its recommendations had better be good, as Labour's continued relevance, at least within Scotland, could well be at stake. And if it falls in Scotland, where else might the red rose be dropped?
Seeking comfort and shelter in the safe, old anti-Tory battles of the past was always going to be problematic within the context of a Scottish election; after all, how would having a large number of Scottish MSPs have compromised the actions of the Coalition Government in Westminster? The UK is not one single political entity -- actually, it never has been -- and it's important to remember that. Until they do, however, Labour will simply not be telling the kind of story that a majority of Scots would appear to want to hear.