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Gregor Gall: No time to lose if it’s a Yes to independence

The Better Together campaign was launched in June last year. Picture: PA

The Better Together campaign was launched in June last year. Picture: PA

  • by GREGOR GALL
 

Those campaigning for a separate Scotland must take advantage of the Better Together’s stuttering start, writes Gregor Gall

IF THE groups and the forces for independence are to win a Yes vote in late 2014, they need to conduct a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of their opposition, the Better Together (or No) campaign.

This is all the more crucial as support for independence languishes at around the 30 per cent mark.

But it is even more vital because the greatest strength of the No campaign is the simple sense of inertia – of Scotland staying as it is. In other words, campaigning for change is a greater challenge because it involves having to positively win the argument in order to move the tectonic plates of politics.

Consequently, it is up to the Yes forces to force the pace of the debate. By contrast, the No campaign has less to do because it can win by default – simply because the Yes campaign has not done enough to win. So far, the Yes campaign under the SNP’s leadership has not made the social justice case for independence which could turn the tables here. It remains to be seen whether Nicola Sturgeon’s recent support for the utilitarian – and not existential – case heralds a breakthrough here.

Allied to this sense of the immovable object is that of the unstoppable force. The sustained prospect of a Labour government in Westminster under Ed Miliband in 2015 undermines the key argument of the SNP for independence, namely, that independence is needed to protect Scotland from the Tories. Because voters still see Labour as a political alternative to the Tories, the SNP cannot paint both Labour and the Tories as the same.

At the moment, Labour continues to bask in the warmth of the unpopularity of the Tories and has relatively little to do of its own volition to remain on course for victory. Even if Ed Miliband continues to make little headway as Labour leader, Labour itself remains the main political UK alternative – and all the more so as the Liberal Democrats remain so widely despised and distrusted after entering into coalition with the Tories.

The third strength of the No campaign is that most of the media wishes to see the maintenance of the union – or at the very least is not in favour of independence. This not only normalises the Unionist case but gives it legitimacy by default. Even though the government of Scotland favours independence, this is does not outweigh the force of the media. Indeed, if the SNP government tries to neutralise the force of the media, it is likely to adopt a very cautious case for independence which will do nothing to set the heather alight for most citizens.

Finally, the last strength of the No campaign is the only real one it has positively created. This is identifying the persona of Alex Salmond as potentially the Achilles’ heel of the pro-independence forces. Until recently, Salmond has been a Teflon-like political giant amongst pygmies. Now, after a series of mistakes, the perception of his trustworthiness is the target his unionist critics will continually shoot. They believe it is a case of kill the messenger, kill the message.

Yet there are also some serious weaknesses in the No campaign – despite its professed new year’s resolution for 2013 of recruiting 20,000-30,000 activists to canvass one million voters before the start of 2014.

The first of these is that there is little sense in which Better Together is actually a campaign, if by which the term means activity on the ground and by the group itself. Front person, Alastair Darling, may make occasional statements but there is very little behind him in terms of organisation. Instead it is Ed Miliband and Cameron – as political leaders of their own parties – who are really firing the bullets. Labour Scottish leader Johann Lamont has yet to put her stamp on the campaign. So this means that although shots are being fired at the Yes campaign, they are not being done so as a coherent Better Together effort so they make less impact..

All this speaks to the next aspects of weakness – those in the Labour Party cannot bring themselves to really work with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in a united way, and their rivalry is only likely to deepen as the campaigns for the 2015 general election get into gear.

The most obvious aspect of this disunity concerns what Better Together offers in the event of a No vote. Can the different unionist parties agree on any particular version of devo-max and can they be trusted to deliver this?

The other aspect of the No camp divisions is that the normal foot soldiers of Labour have not so far shown any signs of falling into line as expected. So far only the Aslef train drivers’ union has come out against independence.

By contrast, the Unison union and the STUC have made it clear it that they remain to be convinced by either side and have posed questions for both sides that need to be answered before any for or against position is taken. In the absence of union support, the No camp lacks finance and activists to knock doors and staff the phone banks.

Politically, the great weaknesses of Better Together is the sense of asking people to sign up to continue austerity for no matter who wins the 2015 Westminster general election, the austerity will continue.

If these are the key strengths and weaknesses of Better Together, the pro-independence forces need to take heed and work out what the opportunities and threats are. This means making a positive case for independence that addresses the pressing social and economic issues citizens in Scotland face.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire and is a resident of Edinburgh (g.gall@herts.ac.uk)

 

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