David Maddox: In battle for referendum hearts and minds, it's the SNP that can afford heavy artillery
ONE of the untold consequences of the historic SNP Holyrood election victory is that it has created an army of state-funded activists to prepare the way for the independence referendum.
It is, though, certainly an issue that is focusing minds in the Scotland Office and some of the more canny unionist politicians with an estimate that the SNP will have up to 300 researchers, press officers and so forth to do the groundwork, all on the public payroll.
The reason for this is the sheer weight of Nationalist MSPs in Holyrood. Party funding through the allowances system and money for staff is based on how many MSPs a party has, and the SNP's 69 MSPs alone will account for more than 200 employees with three staff each. The Scottish Government will be able to employ more and there will be a press team.
One senior Westminster source said: "It is a worry. They (the SNP] will have more staff at their disposal than all the other parties put together, who will be able to go and do the legwork for the referendum over the next few years. The SNP will even be able to pay them through the public purse which will be a huge financial lift for them."
In the last parliament, the unionist parties complained that the National Conversation was essentially state-funded party political propaganda, but this situation is of far more concern for the battered remains of those parties following Alex Salmond's victory.
Conversely, the much reduced ranks of Labour and the Lib Dems have left those parties in a difficult position and with far diminished funds. The Lib Dems are without much of an infrastructure for either the referendum or rebuilding.
Whether Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore wants to publicly admit it or not, the "campaign to save the union" is already beginning. "There is a coalescing of interests," one Whitehall source put it. "Of course there will only be an official campaign when the referendum is called, but in effect it begins now."
However, the question remains over who will be leading the fight to save the union and in the short term that is "expected" to be the role of the Scottish Secretary. As reported in last week's Scotsman, several Lib Dem figures do not think it should be Mr Moore, who they think is too laid back.
Within Westminster the talk is that the far more "robust and positive" Alistair Carmichael will shortly be drafted in to take on Alex Salmond in a reshuffle.
Mr Carmichael is the Deputy Chief Whip and there was some surprise he wasn't made Scottish Secretary when Danny Alexander was moved from the job early in the coalition to fill in at the Treasury for David Laws.
Interestingly, it is being discussed in Westminster that Willie Rennie, the former MP soon to be Lib Dem Holyrood leader, and Mr Moore do not get on, while he and Mr Carmichael worked well together.
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