David Torrance: Big guns primed as battle lines drawn
As the momentum gathers pace towards the historic independence vote, unionists are mustering their forces
In the autumn of 1997, just months after Tony Blair had won an historic landslide election, three of Scotland’s political parties came together in a hitherto unthinkable coalition. Their goal was to secure a ‘yes vote’ in a devolution referendum, which they achieved following a memorably positive and disciplined campaign.
It says a lot about how much Scottish, and indeed UK, politics has changed since, that the ‘Scotland Forward’ strategy of 1997 is now the a model for another cross-party campaign, only this time two of those pro-devolution parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, are joining forces with the Conservatives, who 15 years ago led the ‘no campaign’.
Now the aim is not to devolve power to Scotland, but to preserve the status quo. The SNP’s ‘yes campaign’ has already begun, with a recognisable leader (Alex Salmond), a campaign director (Angus Robertson) and, more to the point, lots of money. The SNP has a referendum war chest amounting to more than £2 million. The no campaign or, as some would prefer to style it, the pro-UK campaign is, by contrast, distinctly low key.
Questions abound. How will the campaign be structured? Who will lead it? And can it develop a positive case for the United Kingdom? Significantly, on all three fronts the events of the past few weeks have acted as what one senior figure called ‘a catalyst’.
“Before Christmas there were a series of unrelated discussions,” he says. “Now there are more focused conversations involving all the key players. Recent events have given it a new sense of urgency; it’s all now coming together.”
With David Cameron’s intervention on 8 January, the phony referendum war that began after last May’s election finally came to an end. Although the campaign proper is still a long way off, the pre-campaigning has begun in earnest. Structurally, what the no campaign wants to avoid is the sort of fragmentation witnessed during the 1979 devolution referendum. Then, there were eight rival yes campaigns; Helen Liddell, Scottish Labour’s general secretary, famously declared that they would not be ‘soiling’ their hands by joining “any umbrella yes group”.
By contrast, in 1997 Scotland Forward united three political parties and several external organisations under a single yes-yes message. They successfully generated a sense of unity through joint events and agreed messages, but also campaigned under their own banners. One key Labour figure points out that in this respect, the no campaign will not resemble the AV referendum in that the parties involved are not split between yes and no camps. “This is an all-party campaign,” he says, “but at the same time there will be separate Tory, Labour and Lib Dem campaigns.” Each party will be responsible for mobilising its own supporters.
Discipline will be essential, not least to mask strategic differences over the constitution. Although all three of the unionist parties supported the Calman Commission and subsequent Scotland Bill, there are now signs that Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to go further. All three parties are determined to avoid getting sidetracked into debating more powers or the merits of devo-max. Those discussions, they argue, are not suitable for the referendum.
Labour, to some extent, remains the weak link in this grand plan, some in the party being torn between their hatred of the SNP and a similar antipathy to Tories. Although the Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, has no problem sharing a platform with the prime minister, other senior figures such as Jim Murphy have made clear their opposition. This is not necessarily a problem, for Murphy will still campaign, although it risks the no camp appearing less than united. As any good trade unionist knows, unity is strength.
Timescale is also important. The yes campaign kicked off several months ago, but the no camp does not feel compelled to fit in with Alex Salmond’s timetable. Although planning is now well in train (and has been since Lamont’s election in December), Labour and the Conservatives at a UK level are focused on the London mayoral election on 3 May, and all three parties on the local government elections the same day. Once those are out of the way, the focus will shift to the referendum, where it will remain until 2014, interrupted only by a European Parliament election that June.
That does not, however, preclude something happening in the near future. Not necessarily a full launch (which, after all, the SNP has not done either), but something that indicates a no campaign exists and is well organised.
“It has to be something that builds momentum over time,” says someone involved with the planning. “It will grow as an organisation, pulling in people as it does so. That’s quite important: we’re not going to point to one politician and say, he’s leader of the campaign.”
So if not one leader, how many and, more to the point, who? Again, the model is 1997’s Scotland Forward campaign, in which the engaging triumvirate of Alex Salmond, Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace shared the limelight. Although the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling has denied any leadership role, he is central to the plans. “He doesn’t want to be set up as the equivalent of Alex Salmond,” says a source, “but he’s very willing to play a big role. It’s better not to have one figure that Salmond can focus all his fire on. It has to be broader in scope.”
Some reports have portrayed current chancellor George Osborne as the leader in waiting, but that misunderstands his role, which will be more strategic than public day-to-day involvement. Osborne chairs the Ad Hoc Ministerial Group on Scotland, a cabinet sub-committee charged with overseeing strategy. Any decisions need to be signed off by ‘the quad’ (the PM, Osborne, Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg), while the quad+ comprises those four together with Michael Moore and David Mundell. The Downing Street machine, unlike last year, is now fully engaged with the referendum.
Certain figures are also pushing for David Cameron to play a substantial role, which may delight the SNP but recognises that the prime minister of the UK cannot credibly be excluded from the campaign. They believe that, unlike Margaret Thatcher, Cameron is a ‘neutral’ figure, neither hated nor particularly liked by most Scots. Whatever the PM’s involvement, there will be a major figure associated with each party, most likely Darling, Annabel Goldie for the Conservatives, and perhaps Charles Kennedy for the Liberal Democrats, who, usefully, distanced himself from the coalition government some time ago.
There is also a recognition that the no campaign has to move beyond politicians to embrace figures from outside the Holyrood and Westminster villages. Although the SNP did not invent the use of third-party endorsements, at last year’s Holyrood election it utilised them to great effect. Significantly, many of those endorsed Alex Salmond or the SNP rather than independence, therefore Labour is confident of reclaiming a few celebrity backers, while it also plans to cultivate senior businessmen hitherto believed to be SNP or independence supporters.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats recognise that Labour, north and south of the border, will be at the forefront of this campaigning trio, with Paul Sinclair, Johann Lamont’s press officer and a former adviser to Gordon Brown, a key figure behind the scenes, and Anas Sarwar, Lamont’s articulate deputy, tipped to assume a high-public profile as the no campaign unfolds.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, meanwhile, is developing campaign messages that are not exclusively negative, or focused on highlighting weaknesses in the nationalist position. Another lesson learned from last May’s election is that positive campaigning works, but also allows a degree of negativity underneath. The SNP are past masters at this twin-track approach, blending negativity about UK institutions with positive mood music on independence, but thus far the other side accentuates only the negative.
Willie Rennie, for example, has already started using some nascent positive messaging, recently stating that he wanted “home rule within the UK family, sharing the risks and rewards in a turbulent world”. Anas Sarwar concurs, saying that the 2008 banking crisis (although Scotland’s exact liability is disputed) provides a perfect illustration of how the UK can work together to come through a crisis. “We’ll also be highlighting our voice in the world,” adds Sarwar, “which is strong in bodies like the G8 and UN precisely because we’re part of the UK.”
David Cameron understood the need for a positive tone last May, telling MPs he looked forward to making a “big, optimistic case” for the union, stressing that not only was being part of the UK good for Scotland, but good for the UK.
Nigel Smith, a referendum expert who masterminded the 1997 Scotland Forward campaign, says the no campaign should pursue a “steady, calm, informational approach that gradually earns the trust of voters”.
“They also need to bring alive the variety of living in, and the opportunities afforded by, a bigger society in terms of jobs, careers, hobbies, friends and relatives, that might in some way be made more difficult by independence,” says Smith. “They need to treat the voter as an adult, setting up information lines and making it clear that they’re about to take a very big and important decision concerning their future.”
Learning lessons from previous referendum campaigns, however, does not guarantee success in the autumn of 2014. With the SNP trying to generate a feeling of inevitability about independence, it will go into the campaign proper arguing – assuming the Conservatives still have a poll lead – that Scots face a choice between a UK Tory government with few (or even no) Scottish MPs and an independent Scotland able to take its own decisions. That said, if a week is a long time in politics, then a lot can happen in two and a half years.
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