The No campaign must beware of those who don’t really want independence, but will vote Yes to reject the status quo, writes Brian Monteith
As Alistair Darling, the unionist field marshal by default, surveys the terrain of the likely referendum battleground, he should take care not to be too smug because the Yes campaign launch was given a generally bad review in the media.
It will all soon be forgotten as the nationalists, greens and rag-tag of uber-socialists get down to the real job of knocking on doors and attracting those million signatures they believe they can collect.
More importantly for Darling, there is the small matter of launching the No campaign, and as the person responsible for organising the launch of the No No campaign in 1997, I must warn him there is a great deal that can yet go wrong – certainly enough to make the Yes launch look the apogee of political marketing.
Already, there are signs that holding out for a simple yes or no to independence will prove problematic when last week two of Scotland’s most successful businessmen said that although they favoured staying as members of the United Kingdom, they could yet be convinced that independence was preferable if the status quo was all that was offered instead.
The intervention by Sir Tom Farmer and Jim McColl seemed at first a blow to Alex Salmond, as both had previously endorsed the First Minister when he sought re-election last year, but both are practical men and both reasoned that Salmond was by far the best candidate suited to that particular job. The fact that they also had an appetite for more economic powers residing at Holyrood was an undoubted influence that the meagre offerings of the Westminster government’s Scotland Bill could not sate.
Fortunately for Salmond, the entrepreneurs’ support for the Union was explicitly conditional. Unless it is clear there will be further devolution and that a new proposal is preferably included as a second referendum question, they will have to consider voting for independence as the least worst option.
Now, it would be easy for Darling and the unionist party leaders to dismiss these interventions as publicity-seeking or bluster, but that would be a dangerous miscalculation against which I would strongly advise.
For one, Farmer and McColl are no novices: they know how the political system works and they will realise that if they don’t say their piece now then it could be too late within a few months. Timing can be important and they have got theirs just right.
Secondly, running businesses as successfully as they do requires a great deal of low cunning and political skill that few in Holyrood could manage to match, so let’s give Farmer and McColl the respect and benefit of the doubt they deserve.
They are speaking out as successful Scots that employ a great many people – just the sort of success stories we need to see continue whatever the outcome of the referendum, so what they say must carry some weight.
More importantly for me, the duo represent and articulate what I am already sensing is a growing force within the campaign. It is a new grouping that until now has not been visible but is, rather reluctantly and through a great deal of desperation, contemplating a Yes vote against their better judgment.
We might call them “Unionists for Independence” and although they constitute a living oxymoron, I regularly meet or hear from new members of this group every day.
They are usually, but not exclusively, Conservatives who have given up all hope of their party seeing any sense and offering a real form of devolution that will make the Scottish Parliament accountable. They are usually open-minded about having one or two questions on the referendum paper but they do expect as a minimum a cast-iron commitment about what reforms will be offered if they vote No to separation.
There are two reasons in particular that Alistair Darling and the Westminster coalition leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, should sit up and take notice of Unionists for Independence. The first is that they are regular voters and are highly likely to participate in the referendum. Unlike many unionists whose eyes glaze over when they hear the word devolution, these voters believe strongly in expressing their opinion at the ballot And do so regularly.
Secondly, and most importantly of all, these are swing voters; they are currently counted in the unionists’ No pile but if they move to the Nationalists’ Yes pile, they have the effect of not just adding to the Yes vote but subtracting from the No.
Now, if we accept the recent polling of Scottish opinion as accurate, we are told that only about a third (34 per cent) of Scots will vote for independence and about two-thirds against. But if just over a mere 16 per cent of those currently recorded as Nos decided that in the absence of devo-plus or some other substantial reform being offered then they will throw their lot in with independence, the result would be the break-up of the United Kingdom and the birth of a new democratic, sovereign Scotland.
It will not have gone unnoticed among readers that follow voting trends that 16 per cent is in fact a good two points more than the Scottish Tories have managed in the last two elections; surely they are not all going to suddenly vote for independence?
Of course not, but they don’t have to for Salmond to win. What he us looking for is those people who voted for him and the SNP but are currently in that No pile, like Tom Farmer and Jim McColl, to switch to the Yes pile. They are not Tories but, together with disenchanted Tories, they could determine the outcome.
What then should the unionists do? If Darling and his No campaign wish to push for only one question and win, they have to, at the very least, offer a clear and unequivocal statement of intent about what change would then follow.
No shifting promises in the sand. At least a covenant or Claim of Right – but preferably a White Paper – otherwise Unionists for Independence will become more than an oxymoron.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.com