Gregor Gall: Leaders walk a fine line on Scottish independence debate
WHATEVER side of the independence campaign our politicians stand on, their strengths may also prove to be their ultimate weaknesses in voters’ eyes, writes Gregor Gall
IF A week is a long time in politics – as former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was fond of saying – then the time until the independence referendum in late 2014 could seem like an eternity.
But since both the Yes and No campaigns were launched a few months ago, the seismic fault lines in the debate have become clear already – even if they do not mark out entirely coherent campaigns on either side, or fire up popular enthusiasm.
Examining the strengths and weaknesses of the Yes campaign highlights four key issues. Ironically, the strengths are also weaknesses – each and all depend on the context. First, and for some considerable time to come, the issue of what exactly Alex Salmond and the SNP will do about a second referendum question on some form of enhanced devolution hangs like a sword of Damocles over the pro-independents.
Following the SNP’s landslide victory in the Holyrood elections in May 2011, the SNP seemed confident on setting its course on independence. But upon finding that support for independence remains stubbornly around a third of the electorate and with little sign of the “don’t knows” and “not yet decided” coming its way, pragmatism has taken over. In these circumstances, Salmond, the strategist, is considering allowing a second question to try to not only avoid outright defeat but also to salvage something and outflank his unionist opponents by playing divide and rule at the same time. His get-out clause if he does allow the second question is the result of the public consultation on independence, where the majority of submissions favour enhanced devolution. He will stand as the democrat in responding to the popular will.
Facing something other than a straight Yes/No choice, the unionist parties are less certain of their ground. But in doing so, Salmond may shoot himself badly in his own foot. Any sense that the leading advocate of independence is no longer fully supportive of it will be the death knell to the overall independence campaign. No amount of saying that enhanced devolution is the next step towards full independence will wash with the electorate, let alone ardent SNP members.
Second, and as catastrophic as this might be, it would pall into comparison if Salmond was to suddenly depart this mortal coil. The life of a politician is never a healthy one – eating late, endless meetings, eating too much at too many functions and getting no exercise. Salmond’s waistline has grown enormously, so buttoning a jacket is now some achievement. The unexpected passing of John Smith and Donald Dewar highlighted just how befallen a political party can be at crucial points as a result of the death of its leader.
With no obvious successor at present, if anything happened to Salmond the SNP could then face a damaging leadership contest between many mediocre contenders with no clear winner emerging. Salmond remains a giant on the political stage, surrounded by a host of parliamentary pygmies.
Third, the glittering launch of the Yes campaign and its nominal leadership by technocrat Blair Jenkins has sought to show that the campaign is not a front for the SNP. When the Greens did not play ball, the SNP invited the Scottish Socialist Party as the left of independence campaign on to the campaign’s advisory board.
The campaign now includes those from the left, centre and right of the political spectrum – people from the business community as well as from the activist left. This is a strength, showing a broad range of opinion in favour of independence. But it is also a weakness when it comes to delivering a singular vision of what independence will look like.
In launching the Yes campaign, Salmond spoke of a greener, fairer and more prosperous Scotland. On one level, that is motherhood and apple pie to everyone. But among the pro-independence forces, there are clearly very different views on how to achieve this vision and about what it should actually look like. An easy way to get a sense of this is by asking whether wealth redistribution will occur under a particular version of independence.
Last, if both the fracturing of the coalition government continues and Labour maintains its current popularity, then the prospect of the return of Labour at Westminster increases. Much of the support for independence is predicated upon protecting Scotland from Tory governments. This dynamic will be severely dented if the referendum takes place under a soon to be returned Labour Party.
Turning to the “Better Together” No campaign, its strengths are again also its weaknesses. Alastair Darling was clearly the best choice of leader for it – he is the nearest thing it could get to a statesmanly, authoritative figure to match Salmond. The campaign could not be lead by a Tory as that would have been a massive own goal. No Liberal Democrats, such as Lords Steel or Wallace, could overcome their party now being seen as soiled goods following its entry to government at Westminster. Yet Darling is not untarnished himself as a result of being the chancellor who presided over the further deregulation of the banks and City and the crisis this then gave rise to.
Uniting Labour, Conservatives and Liberals together is no mean feat, but their unity is palpably threadbare as they remain veritable competing political parties. It is not so much that disunity it is continually on show, rather, it is that it stops them from taking the initiative and the fight to the pro-independents. Come the proximity of the referendum to a Westminster general election in May 2015, this unity – and unity in action – will erode even further.
Labour will need its Scottish troops to engage in open warfare with the Tories if Ed Miliband is to use his safe Scottish seats as a launchpad for taking seats off the Tories in middle England and gaining the keys to Downing Street. For Labour, winning at Westminster is a bigger goal than unity of purpose to defeat independence.
The one thing the three parties do agree upon is that the age of austerity of cuts in the public services and the welfare state will have to continue under the Union – they just differ on the size, speed and location of the cuts. This is not a great selling point for the Union.
But a bigger issue is whether the three parties have any credibility to make their case. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont cannot rely on Darling to do her work for her, and there is little evidence so far that she can carve out her own space and stature. The same is true of the other new leaders – Ruth Davidson of the Tories and Willie Rennie of the Liberals. Three heads are not better than one here.
The credibility gap is even more pronounced on whether the three parties can be trusted to deliver their enhanced devolution alternative if independence is rejected in a straight one-question referendum. The Tories would no doubt try to use the rejection to keep the status quo. Quite how long it would take the other two parties to agree upon a plan and implement it is anybody’s guess. But any sense of undue delay would leave the two parties open to well-founded accusations of feet-dragging and backsliding.
The one undoubted strength the No campaign has is that it is up to the Yes campaign to make the running because independence is about change and not the status quo. But reliance upon this in-built advantage could lead to complacency.
Whether any particular strength becomes a weakness or vice-versa will become apparent when the political season proper reopens shortly.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire
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