Brian Monteith: How Yes failed to win independence

Poor organisation sometimes left the No camp with no badges or leaflets. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Poor organisation sometimes left the No camp with no badges or leaflets. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Both campaigning groups made mistakes, but the SNP must stop playing the victim, writes Brian Monteith

Both Labour and the SNP must change their attitudes. There is an all too familiar but still unseemly rush to leave behind last Thursday’s huge decision when there remains a great deal to digest about what actually has happened. It is fair enough that politicians of all hues, their current or would-be advisers, and commentators who try to be ahead of developments, will seek to dictate or discuss what Scotland’s future now holds. Experience is only gained and can then become beneficial, however, if the mistakes of the two campaigns are identified and learnt from, which given the result, can be summed up as how No nearly lost and Yes failed to win.

For the No campaign, generally represented by Better Together – to all intents and purposes a Labour-led and dominated organisation – there was one logistical and two strategic mistakes.

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Very little has been said publicly by No supporters about the logistical difficulties they endured for obvious reasons of campaign unity and loyalty. Now, following the result, it is not difficult to find foot soldiers complaining they were repeatedly lacking campaign leaflets for household delivery or manning their street stalls, nor could they obtain enough posters or stickers for creating a higher level of visible support that could give the public the perception of a confident winning campaign. This criticism has since been confirmed separately to me by senior politicians who knew of this failing but were unable to explain it.

I have fought many campaigns, including two devolution referenda, so I know that fighting with one arm behind their backs would be bad enough – but to also be saddled with two strategic flaws makes me tempted to think that 55.3 per cent saying No was achieved despite Better Together rather than because of it.

The first flaw was the repeated lack of a positive narrative about how successful the UK is – either in social reform, economic achievement or cultural diversity and creativity. The cause of this lacuna was undoubtedly Labour’s unwillingness to say anything positive about the UK. Thus the No campaign never used the UK’s economic recovery, the astoundingly good employment figures being achieved in the UK or Scotland, while it was initially willing to buy into the misrepresentation of the NHS being privatised.

The second flaw was a failure to explain how the new powers coming from the Scotland Act of 2012 meant a No vote must result in change – and to then take that further and create a credible proposal and believable process about further powers. Both of these errors are unforgivable for the Scotland Act was passed two years ago and could be used immediately to show how the unionist parties could be trusted to deliver, while the various party proposals were available from May and could easily have been the catalyst for launching events that would have wrested the initiative away from the Yes campaign, providing a positive and uplifting component to the No campaign.

Over at Yes Scotland – which for all its breadth of activism had to rely on what the SNP defined as the vision for an independent Scotland – it was truly inexplicable that after a lifetime of expectation and years of preparation for politicians such as Alex Salmond the position on currency had not been fully thought through. This provided an Achilles heal that the No campaign just kept biting.

Behind this particular example – but where the issues of pensions, EU membership, finance sector jobs, property prices, border posts and others provided further damaging instances – there was a fundamental flaw; namely that for all civic nationalism provided an idealistically positive prospectus the unwillingness of either Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon to countenance there were any risks was simply not credible. Had they accepted those risks and explained how they could be dealt with would have given greater confidence to the many sympathisers that eventually voted No because they harboured doubts. Stories of Yes voters changing their minds within the last week because of those risks are legion.

It would have been more honest and credible to say that while sterling was the preferred option that Plan B was to establish a new Scottish currency like that of Denmark’s and then explain how the transition, albeit difficult, could then be made. Instead, by picking a fight with the Bank of England, UK Treasury, the markets and the likes of Paul Krugman, about using sterling and then stating Scotland would walk away from its share of UK debt, the Yes campaign showed it had no credible economic plan.

The Yes campaign only needed to neutralise the economic arguments and it could then go on to win – instead it lived in an unreal world and fought a ridiculous battle like the Black Knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

The other damaging aspect to the Yes campaign case was how it repeatedly failed to curb the more excessive behaviour of its activists. The abuse on social media of those declaring for No, such as JK Rowling, Paul McCartney, Michelle Mone and many more, is well documented – but once that behaviour spilled on to the streets and resulted in the organised haranguing of Jim Murphy and No supporters, or the regular vandalism of No signs and posters, the ugly side of nationalism made many feel uncomfortable with where Scotland was heading. I know even of SNP supporters who recoiled from this type of nationalism and decided to vote No.

The reason for these strategic flaws in the Yes campaign is not hard to identify: it was the hubris of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon – the belief that they could not be wrong or at least not be seen to be wrong. That Salmond has resigned is, as I argued here back in May, only right – but I cannot be alone in thinking that in banning Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and Guardian journalists it was done gracelessly and without any genuine sense of responsibility. He remains in denial, for Salmond resignation is nothing other than a manoeuvre designed to preserve the career of his chief accomplice, Sturgeon.

No-one likes a sore loser and in saying at the weekend that No voters had been tricked, Salmond showed arrogant disrespect for the judgement of more than two million Scots. The SNP must change its victimhood culture or it will in time become a victim to the electorate.