THE essay we publish today by Douglas Alexander, the Renfrewshire MP and shadow foreign secretary, marks the beginning of a new phase in the independence referendum campaign.
And it arrives not a moment too soon. With just nine months to go until Scotland goes to the polls to vote on independence, the Better Together campaign to keep the UK from splitting up has a healthy lead in the polls. But its tactics are coming in for growing criticism, and the inherent tensions in its cross-party alliance of Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats are becoming all too apparent. Scottish Labour chairman Jackson Cullinane recently expressed the distaste he and many other party activists feel for campaigning alongside the Scottish Tories. And last week senior Conservatives at Westminster were disparaging about Alistair Darling’s leadership of the pro-UK alliance, suggesting he needs to be replaced. Meanwhile, long-time federalists in the Scottish Lib Dems express frustration at the lack of progress towards a new offer on more powers for Holyrood that can be presented to Scottish voters as the prize to be won in the event of a No vote.
Alexander’s essay today is part of a trend we can expect to see more of from both sides, of political parties coming to the forefront of the debate alongside the mainstream umbrella Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns. On the pro-independence side, the SNP has already begun fighting this campaign as if it were a party political election, rather than a referendum. It has made manifesto-style promises on child care, retirement age and the minimum wage, even though these are issues that would have to wait until the first general election in an independent Scotland, still more than two years away. Alexander’s essay – an elegant expression of the case for the UK as seen through the prism of traditional Labour values of “struggle, solidarity and social justice” – is a landmark piece of writing that gives the No voice a distinctive Labour accent it has hitherto lacked. Expect more of this in the new year.
We can also expect a diversification in the No message, with the volume turned up on those voices in Wales, England and Northern Ireland asking Scots to stay in order to push for social and political change across the whole of the UK. From the left in these other parts of Britain will come a heartfelt plea: “Please, do not abandon us to the tender mercies of the English Tories.” What this newspaper will keep a particularly sharp eye on is progress towards agreement on more powers for Holyrood.
Some anti-independence activists may be worried about these developments. They will point to the healthy poll lead for a No vote and ask: Why change a winning formula? The blunt answer is it may not be a winning formula for much longer. It is not hard to find No supporters who are dismayed at the negativity of Better Together, and who are appalled at how it has allowed Yes supporters to set up camp on the sunny uplands of social optimism and political positivity. Undecided voters may have concerns about independence, but they need something tangible and appealing to vote for. For many on the centre-left it is galling to see their opponents claiming to be the sole vehicle for progressive politics, and for this to go largely unchallenged. Recent polls suggest the No vote may be vulnerable, and this is the reason why. By moving out of its bunker, Better Together may indeed expose its flanks. But the unpalatable alternative is dying in a ditch for the Union.
Lesson for Scotland
Each person who has been touched by the death of Nelson Mandela will take their own lesson from his extraordinary life. That lesson may be one of resilience, of dignity in adversity, of the human capacity for forgiveness. And for some, Mandela’s life will strike a chord with their own political beliefs, with lessons learned for the causes to which they owe their own allegiance. This is as true in Scotland as anywhere else, perhaps particularly so in the thick of a referendum campaign over Scottish independence.
This newspaper would argue there is one aspect of Mandela’s luminescent life that should, above all else, be the abiding lesson for Scotland as it decides its future. It is this. Mandela’s political victory in defeating apartheid was an extraordinary achievement – but what made it a transcendent moment for humankind was as much the manner in which it was achieved as the achievement itself. Eschewing triumphalism and revenge, Mandela used all his considerable power to ensure that what emerged from the tumult was not a white South Africa and a black South Africa, but one nation with a shared purpose. Here in Scotland, of course, there is far, far less at stake. But whatever the outcome next September, it is vital for this country’s future that there is grace in victory and grace in defeat. Scotland must emerge as one nation, not two tribes.