Eddie Barnes: Does the plain-Jane start of the ‘No’ campaign to save the Union embody a problem?
CINEMAS, rock music, marketing gimmicks, Cool Britannia logos – there will be none. “Sober,” declares one organiser of the official Better Together campaign, launching in Edinburgh tomorrow, when asked about the tone.
A few weeks ago, the YesScotland campaign kicked off with tub-thumping speeches from Hollywood actors Alan Cumming and Brian Cox, songs from Dougie MacLean and a political speech from Alex Salmond. When the pro-Union cross-party group kicks off its own event, headed up by Alistair Darling, the mood – as befits the character of the former chancellor – will be less hyper.
“We are not going to have a 1970s revival,” declares one figure, sardonically noting the ageing rockers and actors wheeled out for the independence camp. A few politicians will speak for the main parties involved. There will also be – in the words of the political village – “real people”, from all walks of society. No celebs are to be flown in. Another adds: “Celebrities blow up in your face. We are also desperately keen to avoid the scenario of having a group of male over-50-year-olds.”
For the campaign which, in the words of its proponents, is the most important one fought in Scotland in 300 years, it is a low-key start. There are, of course, well over two years until Scotland’s actual decision day if Alex Salmond’s preferred timetable of a vote in autumn 2014 is adhered to.
That allows plenty of time to warm up, note organisers. It is also an attempt to strike a more down-to-earth contrast with the flashy start of the independence campaign. But does the plain-Jane start of the campaign to save the Union embody a problem? Over on the other side, the independence campaign is aiming to grasp a sense of optimism and possibility about the country’s future, encapsulated by its YesScotland title. It may have had a rocky start – with leaked papers suggesting the word “independence” should be watered down – but it has the chance none the less to set out a positive case that may tempt patriotic Scots.
The pro-Union campaign, on the other hand, has the long hard slog of the status quo. A campaign that attacks independence relentlessly risks knocking Scotland down; a NoScotland campaign would not be good. Equally, a campaign which tried to pit the Union flag against the Saltire would be knocked for six. So how do the pro-Union camp seek to win their case? And what are their chances of success?
It may be that the campaign is not wanting to be embodied by male over-50-year-olds. It is, however, very much being headed up by the 58-year-old Darling.
The ex-chancellor embodied the practical side of the last Labour government. Equally, his political skills – which saw him rub out the coronation of Ed Balls as chancellor-elect under Gordon Brown’s dysfunctional administration, are well honed. He has put both to good use to facilitate the tricky business of bringing together implacable foes in a common cause. From the front room of his house in Edinburgh, the campaign has been growing.
In London, David Cameron and George Osborne are sitting it out, aware that a campaign led by MPs from Witney and Tatton would be doomed to failure (a rare sign of political self-knowledge that has impressed the Scottish pro-Union leaders). Instead, the Better Together 2012 Ltd company, which was registered at the beginning of June, has directors from all the three main Scottish parties involved in the campaign.
A former Labour party special adviser, Blair McDougall, has returned from community organising in London to head up the ground operation. Other appointments include Strathclyde Police’s director of communications Rob Shorthouse, who will head up the media side. On Monday, battle is joined.
The SNP has already got its lines straight. With Labour committing the heresy of aligning itself in a cause alongside the Conservatives, the Nationalists have readily taken to branding it the “Tory-led anti-independence” movement. Nicola Sturgeon last week repeated a phrase which appears certain to become familiar over the coming months and years; that a campaign fronted by Labour to save the Union, with all that that entails, shows they “prefer Tory government to self-government”.
On the YesScotland side of the argument is their core pledge, asserting that Scotland is best run by the people who live here. It will ram home the point over and over again that Labour is putting its lot in with a campaign which would see Scotland governed by a Conservative administration it didn’t want.
The Better Together campaign will hope to over-ride that tomorrow by pointing to the gravity of the choice. This isn’t, organisers argue, about whether to give David Cameron the heave-ho. It is, a leading figure notes, a contest which will decide the country’s future for the next 300 years. The campaign also believes the Nationalists’ case does not stack up. Some are already comparing it to the ill-fated Scottish Labour campaign at last year’s Holyrood elections, when former leader Iain Gray tried to raise the spectre of Tory rule to push people to Labour.
“But people know we have devolution now,” says one pro-Union organiser, (repeating exactly what SNP people were saying last April). Furthermore, given current polling, the Conservative bogeyman is beginning to look more mortal – with Ed Miliband’s chances of winning the next General Election in 2015 a real possibility.
SNP figures insist that “as night follows day” Scotland always runs the risk of being under Conservative rule if it stays with Westminster. If Miliband is still ahead by the autumn of 2014, however, that prospect looks that much less imminent.
But it isn’t the Union that’s being considered, the Better Together camp insists: with polls showing only a minority in favour, they want the focus to be on independence. The launch tomorrow will not shy away from going on the attack.
As with a speech by Darling last week, at a conference organised by The Scotsman, the campaign wants to set up lights on the detailed niggly questions – on the pound, the EU, on defence and foreign affairs – which have already caused the SNP more than their fair share of problems.
The campaign knows the response from the independence side will be to accuse it of being negative. But they claim not to be bothered. One campaign source puts it thus: “If you were buying a house and every time you raised a problem the estate agent told you to stop being so negative you would start thinking there was subsidence or something. Under no circumstance are we going to give up our right to question the proposition being put.” Darling this weekend is also seeking to emphasise the emotional as well as the institutional bonds which, he says, independence threatens. “I don’t think people want to make foreigners of their friends and relatives,” he said.
However, the tone will be important. At the The Scotsman conference last week, at least one non-aligned figure present left, muttering that Darling had been too dismissive, failing to offer a positive case for the Union. With polls showing that the Scottish Government remains popular and trusted, he will have to be careful not to rub people up the wrong way.
Equally, the campaign’s insistence that the focus must remain on independence – and independence only – is sure to be tested. Releasing its own poll today, in a deliberate attempt to pressurise the pro-Union cause, the Future of Scotland Coalition – which includes the Kirk, the National Union of Students and the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) – claims most Scots would like the debate to be wider, including consideration of a more powerful form of devolution.
Darling and others have already said they favour further powers heading to Holyrood; with the ex-chancellor expressly mentioning income tax as one to pass to Edinburgh in its entirety. But the campaign is insisting that any debate about devolution cannot take place while Scotland decides whether or not to leave the UK. The campaign also believes the SCVO and its followers are deliberately providing cover for Salmond to give him an excuse to offer a second question in the referendum on “more powers” – and a safety net in case he loses.
Martin Sime, the chief executive of the SCVO, argues this is where people are, however. “It is pretty clear that people want some kind of home rule. There’s a strong majority against defence and foreign affairs, but people want control over domestic policy.”
Given the nuance in the public’s views, Sime says that to focus solely on independence as the option isn’t therefore right, depriving most voters of the thing they appear to prefer.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University goes on: “If you just have a yes-no referendum, you won’t resolve the constitutional issue. It is clear that a majority of people would like the Scottish Parliament to be more powerful than it is. It doesn’t follow that they therefore want different levels of taxation from the rest of the UK. It’s a question of legitimacy”.
Aware of this pressure, the Better Together campaign is ramming home the message this weekend that it has to be one question, and one question only. With rumours their own internal polling shows support for independence running as low as 20 per cent, confidence is running high that on a yes-no vote, they are on a sure footing. More devolution to Holyrood should be considered but, in the words of one Labour MP, “on the basis of appropriateness not appeasement”.
Cameron has already told colleagues he believes the SNP’s flirtation with a fall-back option is a fatal sign of weakness. Darling is now driving home the point that, having taken Scotland closer to independence than ever before, Salmond is “running scared” of getting on with it.
The camp is also now of the view that the referendum cannot yet be certain to happen; if polls continue to show no momentum behind independence, they believe Salmond will push the second question option forward, in the full knowledge it would dash a deal between Westminster and Holyrood on the running of the vote. And without Westminster handing Holyrood the legal power to stage such a referendum, the prospect of the entire matter heading for the quagmire of the courts emerges.
That is for another day. As with Wendy Alexander four years ago, Darling and the rest want to “bring it on”.
Given the overwhelmingly popular backing for a more influential Scottish Parliament, perhaps their demand for a straightforward in-or-out question might push some soft Nationalist voters into backing independence. But, with the polls on independence as they are, it appears this weekend it is a risk they are more than willing to take. «
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