Cycling in Orkney this week, I met on the road a group of vintage car enthusiasts driving Model T Fords.
It got me thinking about the great Henry Ford. I’ve always loved that famous riposte that he reputedly – I’ll come to that – gave to a man when he was told that the customer is always right, that you should give them what they say they want.
“If I’d have asked the public what they wanted”, said Ford allegedly, “they’d have said faster horses”. In other words, by making his famous motor car he created the demand for it. He had an uncanny instinct about what the people demanded, even before they knew what that was, and was nearly always proved right.
Likewise, in the early days of the mobile ‘phone, market researchers found that there was virtually no demand for your ‘phone to have a camera, but as soon as camera ‘phones appeared, nobody wanted anything else.
There’s only one problem with the quote attributed to Henry Ford. He almost certainly didn’t say it. Until about twenty years ago, it hadn’t even been attributed to him.
And then there’s a credibility issue. The line, in context, doesn’t make any sense. Because “faster” wasn’t the selling point of cars over horses. Speed wasn’t the problem. Spending huge amounts of money, time, and space on keeping horses alive was the problem. And the other issue was the three thousand tonnes of manure that, for example, Victorian London’s horses produced – every single day. The issue was therefore not one of speed but public health. So Henry Ford almost certainly didn’t say it. It’s probably just a load of, well, horseshit. Although it’s interesting and deliciously ironic that in an age when we’re all transitioning away from fossil fuelled cars, Henry Ford’s gas guzzlers started cleaning up the world’s cities virtually overnight.
Having said all that, the logic behind presenting your target market with something before they’ve necessarily demanded it seems solid enough.
I’ve questioned in this column many times against the widely received wisdom that to build back from the pandemic we must first wait for it to be over. At the risk of repeating myself, the Greek etymological origin of the word “crisis” is “turning point”. There’s a similar word in Welsh which roughly means “border”. In both cases, it means that we have a chance to stay where we are – or go somewhere better. The inference is that you don’t wait for the crisis to be over before you act. You do it pretty much straight away. But sometimes – maybe always – it takes courage to do so.
Perhaps the single greatest leap of faith and imagination in history was the emergence of the National Health Service from the ashes of the Second World War. With over seventy years of hindsight, and with just about everyone who’s lived through Covid agreeing that it’s vital that it’s nurtured and protected and kept free at the point of delivery, it’s easy to think that everyone wanted it at the time it was conceived.
No so. At the moment of its conception, a surprising amount of people – including many within the medical profession – opposed it.
Which leads me to make a few observations.
Firstly, I’d highlight the desperately sad historical irony inherent in politicians broadly championing the project at the time amongst lukewarm public support, against entirely the opposite today: broad public support yet a political class working tirelessly to destroy it in order to open it up fully to privatisation to amass more profits at the expense of the rest of us. This is what they mean when they talk about British values.
Secondly, it says much about the social conscience, ethics and leadership of both the wartime and post-war governments that, whilst hardly unaware of the public mood, they pushed ahead anyway. Because they knew that it wasn’t a binary choice. The NHS, the social contract, new houses: these things weren’t for after the recovery. They were the recovery. And they had the blueprint for this in the Beveridge Report, which came out in 1942, bang in the middle of a global conflict. Which makes me think: in terms of the cause of independence, and given that we are now in a state not of crisis but of semi-normal – where’s our blueprint? What’s the date? When it the promised campaign? If not now, when?
In 2012, support for Scottish self-determination sat at around twenty-seven percent. For a brief period, ten days before the referendum, over half of Scotland wanted it. And the only reason it rose was because there was an actual campaign for it. Likewise, today it sits stubbornly around that fifty percent number – which is exactly where it will stay without the catalyst of the campaign ahead of the fresh vote that was the mandated promise, in the lifetime of this parliament. Which is precisely what must happen.
Sure a referendum wasn’t called from 2016 – 2021 and there isn’t one right now. And you could also argue that most independence supporters did not want a referendum before Brexit negotiations were concluded and do not want one in the next year. But then again people didn’t want camera ‘phones and motor cars. Until they were available.
Or you could argue that because circumstances have changed there ought to be a fresh discussion about timing. And you’d be wrong. Because circumstances always change – it’s the only thing that stays the same – and either independence is a good idea or it is not. And if there’s to be a conversation about timing, it should be only three words.
Bring. It. On.
So the debate is not whether Scotland should hold a second referendum – that has already been decided by the people of our country – but when in 2022 it should be held. With a strong possibility of a General Election being held in 2023, one which could well return another Conservative government that wishes to further roll back devolution and continue its assault on Scotland’s democracy, a second vote on Scotland’s future must take place before it. Indeed, failure to hold one will leave no time in this current parliamentary session to participate in the referendum that we were democratically elected to deliver, and will further erode the already alarmingly dropping support for our cause.
Henry Ford knew that if you build it, they will come. The same is true for Scotland’s democracy.
We don’t need faster horses. We need a better country.