How to frame an argument

Nicola Sturgeon’s speech today is a textbook example of how to frame a strategic argument. It is very tightly scripted, cutting through complexities in simple language, dealing with positive and negative points in quick succession, with a big argument running consistently through it.

Here are some notes I have just been making for use in lecturing and writing about political communication.


‘For better or worse – depending on your point of view – the future of the UK looks very different today than it did two years ago.’

[Justifies calling a refendum, having said 2014 was once in a generation]

‘As a result of the Brexit vote we face a future, not just outside the EU, but also outside the world’s biggest single market.’

[Sets the single market as the benchmark, Sturgeon having suggested before that she would not call a referendum if Theresa May kept the UK in the single market]

‘In addition, the collapse of the Labour Party means that we face a prolonged period of uninterrupted and unchecked Conservative government at Westminster. Some predict that the Tories could be in power now at Westminster until 2030 or beyond.’

[Widens the argument beyond Europe, appealing to Scotland’s long-standing anti-Tory majority within a Tory-governed Union.]


‘……. massive implications for Scotland.

It has implications for our economy: for jobs, opportunities, public spending, and living standards – and for our ability to protect and advance our vital day to day priorities in education, health and business.’ [She will have to win the argument about whether Scotland would be economically stronger inside the UK but outside the single market, or outside the UK but inside the EU & single market]


‘It has implications for our society – how open, welcoming, diverse and fair we will be in future?’ [Opens another front in the argument: immigration, and with it, an idea of Scottishness to be contrasted with anti-immigration Englishness]


‘And it has implications for our democracy – to what extent will we be able to determine our own direction of travel, rather than having it decided for us?’ [Rooting the argument in the basic SNP value, independence]


‘In short, it is not just our relationship with Europe that is at stake.

What is at stake is the kind of country we will become.’

[Wrapping the micro messages up in a macro message]


‘…. At times like these, it is more important than ever to have a clear plan for the way ahead – to try, as far as is possible, to be in control of events and not just at the mercy of them.’ [Trying to turn around the fear of risk argument that will be a problem for her]


‘…. The Scottish Government’s paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, was published in good faith. Our proposals represent significant compromise on the part of the Scottish Government. We accepted that Scotland would leave the EU – despite the 62% vote to remain – but argued that the UK should either stay in the single market or seek an outcome that would allow Scotland to do so. [More detail on the single market benchmark, casting herself as the one who tried to compromise]


‘…. but the UK government has not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement. Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence….. The language of partnership has gone, completely.’

[Casting May as inflexible, leaving Sturgeon no choice, which helps answer the ‘why now?’ question as well as portraying herself as the reasonable party]


‘And there should be little doubt about this – if Scotland can be ignored on an issue as important as our membership of the EU and the single market, then it is clear that our voice and our interests can be ignored at any time and on any issue.’

[Setting the broad strategic context – this is more than an immediate difficulty, but flows from the strategic problem the SNP was set up to solve – all arguments lead back into the strategic goal of independence]


‘….. I am not turning my back on further discussions should the UK government change its mind and decide it is willing to agree to our compromise proposals’ [Again portraying herself as reasonable, giving a possible way out]


‘… I want the UK to get a good deal from the EU negotiations. That is clearly in Scotland’s interests as well as in the interests of our friends in other parts of the UK. But I am far from alone in fearing a bad deal or no deal.’


[She doesn’t want to be accused of talking Britain down, or wishing for a bad outcome for her own narrow purposes. And this gives her some room for manoeuvre during May’s EU talks]


Whatever path we take, it should be one decided by us, not for us. [Soundbite/campaign slogan – complexity reduced to memorable simplicity]


‘….A choice of whether to follow the UK to a hard Brexit – or to become an independent country, able to secure a real partnership of equals with the rest of the UK and our own relationship with Europe.’ [Frames the choice – hard Brexit or independent Scotland]


‘…  it is important that Scotland is able to exercise the right to choose our own future at a time when the options are clearer than they are now – but before it is too late to decide on our own path.’ [Major tactical argument on the timing of the referendum, locking it to the rhythm of events]


‘If the UK leaves the EU without Scotland indicating beforehand…. That could make the task of negotiating a different future much more difficult.’

[Another major tactical point, that she wants Scotland negotiating its EU future from within, not after Britain has taken Scotland out.]


‘…….if Scotland is to have a real choice – when the terms of Brexit are known, but before it is too late to choose our own course – then that choice should be offered between the autumn of next year, 2018, and the spring of 2019.’   [A specific timeframe rather than a general intention to hold a referendum, putting pressure on May and focusing Scottish minds on a real decision soon to come.]


‘It will be Scotland’s choice.’

[Concluding with the meta message, expressing a strategy based on her and her government’s values]



Full text






Some Arguments Are More Equal Than Others

Presidents Putin and Trump have a common contempt for evidence at the heart of their political strategies. They invert the cliché ‘creating facts on the ground’: they destroy facts on the ground, so that they can operate in a wasteland where nothing is real and all arguments are equal.

For example, President Putin denied sending troops into Ukraine in 2014, despite clear evidence that his troops were there. This was a strategic falsehood (let’s not accuse anyone of lying – as a former correspondent at the House of Commons, I can’t help finding the word out of order). As an insightful new book on Putin describes his Crimea operation: ‘Speed and stealth, obfuscation and relentless propaganda meant to deflect culpability until it was too late to do anything about it. By the time Putin acknowledged that Russian forces had, in fact, taken control of the entire peninsula before the referendum on its status, the annexation was already a fait accompli.’

[The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, by Steven Lee Myers]

Putin has used a similar technique in Syria. In September 2016, Russia and the US (Obama administration) agreed a ceasefire in Aleppo, only for the first aid convoy to the besieged rebel areas to be destroyed from the air. Russia gave propaganda cover to its client as valuable as its air cover for regime helicopters, saying that the convoy had been attacked by the rebels, apparently blowing up their own food and medicines. Or it spontaneously ignited. It didn’t matter which – the aim was to entangle diplomacy in confusion.

The world’s respectable media reported this even-handedly, as a disputed event. The BBC and other serious broadcasters, like the New York Times and Washington Post, report what is said on all sides amid controversy because that is part of their commitment to honest journalism. Russia has no such values. It is able to exploit western values to create non-factual, value-free equivalence.

The purpose of this equivalence is to make room for action, as with the falsehoods in Ukraine. While dispute raged about the mysteriously combustible aid convoy, Assad declared the ceasefire over and Russia reverted to military action, destroying the possibility of peace talks that had seemed likely at that point. (I am an advisor to the Syrian Opposition at the United Nations talks). Putin’s falsehoods have strategic effect.

I have written about this in NATO’s academic journal, Defence Strategic Communications:

‘The value of evidence — eyewitness accounts from doctors and rescue workers, photographs, and videos — is steadily undermined by the relentless plausibility of Russia’s strategic communication.’ []

And I have lectured about it on the Masters course given by the Centre for Strategic Communication at King’s College, London (KCSC):

‘Putin’s strategy is not based on the usual rules of attraction in strategic communication, what is often known as soft power. …He has forged a different kind of strategic communication based on a different kind of credibility, that relies on neither honesty nor trust nor attraction but on confrontation and sowing confusion.’

Substitute the word Trump for Putin, and the same applies. The President of the United States accuses his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower. Obama’s spokesman denies it, as do the agencies, but is their truth any more trustworthy than Trump’s? For a lot of people — perhaps enough — there are no facts, only opinions, and all arguments are equal: believe what best fits your view of the world, regardless of evidence, of which there is none.

We all have this problem of weighing rival versions and seeking reliable evidence, so it is patronising to dismiss the 40-ish% of US votes — enough for Trump — who choose his version in the desert of alternative facts. Trump and Putin both understand the human difficulty of deciding what is true, a challenge made harder by the speed of modern media.

It is hard for the truth to be as quick as the lie because falsehood needs no fact-checking.

KCSC staged an all-day discussion yesterday (8 March) with NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, at which academics and spokespeople and advisors grappled with the strategic and moral issues arising from the successes of Putin and Trump.

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s Department of War Studies argued against ‘defeatism’, saying that ‘it’s important to keep a handle on the idea that there is a such a thing as truth… to hold to the possibility of evidence and reason’.

Sir David Omand, a former head of GCHQ, the government’s communication centre, and now a Professor at King’s, described well Putin’s tactics as ‘the continuation by other means of classic Soviet-style active measures’, saying that the digitisation of data is ‘a bigger revolution than the invention of moving type’. He asked whether we will be able to distinguish truth from fiction, and commended the enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

I have dug out my long-neglected Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Hume wrote: ‘In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.’


Evidence remains as sound a basis for belief as in the 18th century, but is more difficult to find and cling to in the tide of tweets and the flood of calculated falsehoods.

Dr Kate Utting, of the United Kingdom Defence Academy, and a senior lecturer in defence studies at King’s, wondered if ‘the ultimate delusion is that truth will win’.

So these are profound, not passing, questions, raised by two leaders whose short-term manoeuvres threaten long-term damage to some of the fundamental values that underpin rational decision-making in a complex world. Truth is currently not winning, and the casualties – along with the many dead in Syria and Ukraine — and along with the vitality of western democracy — may in the end be any shared sense of objective realities within which to make political decisions about war and peace and freedom and dictatorship.

The Kremlin and the White House are waging assaults on people’s intelligence. In trying to reduce all arguments to fact-free equivalence, the two Presidents are working on the cynical assumption that few enough people have the attention span to doubt, question, check and make up their own mind.

There has been much quoting of George Orwell’s novelistic slogan ‘Ignorance is Strength’ from1984. Orwell also parodied Putin’s admired Soviet Union in Animal Farm with the phrase ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’.

A slogan for non-defeatists in the age of alternative facts could be:

All arguments are not equal. Some arguments are more equal than others. Evidence is strength.




New verb: to trumplicate

I am inventing a verb, to trumplicate, from which the noun is trumplication and the adjective trumplicated.

The definition of trumplicate is to disguise untruth by complicating what is essentially straightforward, so that most people are misled; a practice frequently used to defend the indefensible without actually lying outright.

An example of trumplication is the excuse given by President Trump (the eponymous founder of the technique) for restricting access to the United States from seven countries who happen to have Muslim majority populations, in order to convince people that this is not a Muslim ban.

Here is what the Trumplicator said: ‘The seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror.’

So the intended trumplicity is to give an impression that the policy is soundly based on president set by the previous precedent. (Trumplifiers often confuse their words, as the Great Trumplicator has been known to do on twitter, for example inventing the apt mis-spelling ‘unpresidented’. Mr Trump’s actions are already way into ‘unpresidented’ territory.)

If it was OK for Obama, why are so many soggy liberals marching up and down? This is the underlying question, intended to confuse and create doubt.

The point of trumplication is not to persuade elites, like the bosses of Apple, Google and Coca-Cola, who are so distant from real people’s lives as to be critical of restrictions on the seven coincidentally Moslem-majority countries: the target is those real people.

It works. My wife came home from her pilates class saying that people there were saying – but didn’t Obama select these seven countries? I don’t suppose they went home and found a reliably old-fashioned media outlet for an accurate account.

Here is what AP Fact Check (Associated Press) says about the above quote from the Great Trumplicator:

‘That is misleading. The Republican-led Congress in 2015 voted to require visas and additional security checks for foreign citizens who normally wouldn’t need visas — such as those from Britain — if they had visited the seven countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. This was included in a large spending bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by Obama.

As the law was enacted, the Obama administration announced that journalists, aid workers and others who travelled to the listed countries for official work could apply for exemptions. There were no special U.S. travel restrictions on citizens of those seven countries.’

So there was no Obama ban on those seven countries, but only an extra layer of checks. This demonstrates how trumplication is not the same as lying – it is true that President Obama was party to a decision involving these countries, in a very specific and limited way, unlike the unspecific, unlimited way in which entire populations are now subject to blanket restrictions. A carefully calibrated measure of caution is not the same thing as wholesale and arbitrary actions. Trump campaigned on banning Muslims and is delivering: it’s as straightforward as that. A lie is easy to spot, but unravelling a trumplication needs a little effort (as in Jan Masaryk’s saying about the truth being a chore – see last blog)

This piece of trumplication has also had some effect on elites. The Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, has instructed his reporters not to use the term Muslim-majority because it is ‘very loaded’. It is also very factual.

(Apologies for not yet writing about President Putin as promised. Coming soon.)






President of the Parallel Universe

The reality is even more shocking than the expectation. Within days of becoming President, Donald Trump has made all predictions lame by comparison with the daily spectacle of leader and his spokespeople telling aggressive untruths.

Falsehoods have been re-branded ‘alternative facts’, by Kellyanne Conway, who glories in the title Counselor to the President, while defending the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, for insisting that the Inauguration had been the most well-attended ever.

This is a parallel universe in which the President is always right, the truth is whatever he says. This will be the strategy when things start to go wrong. The objective is to make all evidence suspect if it counters what the President tells his supporters to believe.

As George Orwell put it in describing the one-party state in his 1984: ‘The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command……’

I wish I were confident that the President and his spokespeople will fail, but there are millions of voters who see no alternative and hear no alternative, to the leader’s truth. This is a sinister political correctness – only the leader can be right.

I saw a quote somewhere this morning from Jan Masaryk, a great Czech opponent of tyranny: ‘The truth prevails, but it’s a chore.’

The New York Times is doing a brave job of the chore of fact-checking, headlining the falsehoods on its front page. But for Trump supporters, the Times is the epitome of elite opinion, the last place to look for facts that suit your world view.

Its most brilliant columnist (in my view), Roger Cohen,  writes: ‘To utter falsehood after falsehood, directly or through a spokesman, is to foster the disorientation that makes crowds susceptible to the delusions of strongmen. Trump’s outrageous claims have a purpose: to destroy rational thought.’

So far the falsehoods are laughably trivial, about the size of the crowd, and whether it rained (though the triviality is terrifying, that people of great power could care so much about so little as to lie so blatantly).

But the dishonesty will become deadly serious when the stakes are high in a crisis, and the free world – which we are still lucky enough to be – cannot turn to the President of the United States for honest judgement.

Only a few days in, we have no more reason to trust President Trump’s word than President Putin’s, of whom I shall write in my next blog.

Fact and fiction in the Post-Trump Era

Donald Trump has changed the rules of politics and challenged the whole basis of strategic communication, with his disregard for facts and evidence. Trump is not the first politician to succeed by getting away with some distortion, but he has put blatant falsehood at the centre of his strategy for capturing the most important democratic position in the world. So it is no longer possible to say that strategic communication – in politics – has to respect facts and reject knowing falsehood, or pay the price in defeat.

It is the speed of social media that has made the Trump technique possible, of instantly setting the agenda by bewildering opponents and reducing old-fashioned fact-based journalism to flat-footed irrelevance.

The paradox of social media is that its miraculous potential for free speech and open minds has given strength to narrow minds and hatefulness. Some social media outlets regard facts as whatever you want to believe. False or distorted news echoes round them, and the more people react, like them, post angry comments about them, the more their readers believe this is the truth because the volume the internet traffic gives falsehoods the credibility of quantity. The sheer quantity of this internet traffic seems to its consumers to be a validation of what they are reading.

So we are seeing on one hand the development of a news environment in which people can believe what they want to believe, with blind faith, not critical judgement, and on the other we have a new breed of politicians led by the US President, who feed the conspiracies and the falsehoods, and the fears and the hatred, and presumably believe what they believe with as much fervour as the millions of consumers of sites like Breitbart and Infowars.

We have a philosophical and practical problem here: where do we draw the line between true and false, between fair comment and disinformation, between reality and hallucination, between all the complexities and ambiguities of life as it really is, and the brutal simplicities of life as misleadingly described by this new political language?

If there are no truths, only opinions;

if authenticity is no more than believing what you say at the time when you say it;

if credibility is getting others to believe whatever they want to believe in the blizzard of aggressive tweeting and fake news on Facebook and Infowars;

then does strategic communication need to be defined as saying whatever works?

In other words, is dishonesty the only way to fight dishonesty?

Or can we have faith that the majority of people will see through what is verifiably untrue?

There cannot be a healthy society which doesn’t agree a consensus on what is basically true, and what is arguable, and what is demonstrably false. That’s the basis of democratic politics.

We are in danger of slipping into a black hole of undemocratic disrespect for the views of others. Once you accept that nothing is true, that everything is relative, that there are no facts, then any opinion however outrageous or fact-free is as valid as the most thoroughly researched and tested evidence. If there is nothing to judge arguments by, except sound and fury, then democratic choice gets lost amid the noise.

The Oxford Dictionaries, which have declared ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year, define it as ‘…circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

This seriously under-estimates the problem. A better word than ‘post-truth’ is ‘anti-factual’. Post-truth sounds like a natural process, which cannot be resisted. It can and must be resisted. Trumpism is a declared war on reality, and non-partisan citizens of the real world need to respond to the challenge; or we will find that nothing is true or false, and all we have left are the credibility of quantity and the authenticity of anger.

Language is the most fundamental accomplishment of humankind. It has made all our other achievements possible. We must not allow it to be misused by the enemies of free thinking.

The battle is about more than words, about something even more important than facts, it is about the values that bind our culture. Trumpism rejects the values of respect on which democracy is based – respect for opponents, respect for other views, respect for facts and evidence. With its allies in Russia and among Europe’s extremists, it will put ignorance above intelligence, abuse above expertise, establishing the rule of intolerance, unless it is resisted with plain speaking and accurate facts.