Alf Young: SNP only has own strategy to blame

The Yes camp has a growing mountain to climb, even to snatch a narrow victory. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Yes camp has a growing mountain to climb, even to snatch a narrow victory. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Playing the long game and insisting on a single referendum may be the undoing of the Yes campaign, writes Alf Young

THERE appears to be growing unease with the quality, so far, of Scotland’s great debate about its constitutional future. At an ESRC conference on the issue the other day, Professor James Mitchell, now occupying a chair in public policy at Edinburgh University, called it “arid and acrimonious”. And “undecided” businessman, Sir Tom Hunter, wants both sides to up their game. More clarity from the Yes campaign. Less negativity and a more positive case for the present union from Better Together.

We could all, I’m sure, come up with less public voices saying much the same thing in private. With about 500 days left until we all get to decide, addressing the biggest question Scotland has faced in more than three hundred years begins to feel like one long, repetitive slog, drained of energy and that initial sense of exhilaration. Might an embarrassingly low turnout even beckon?

I’ve just checked both the Yes Scotland and Better Together websites. Beneath invitations to sign the Yes Declaration, buy merchandise and Donate to Yes, there’s a live feed. Its latest story, beside a picture of seven people jumping up and down with placards, has the headline: An Independent Scotland – It has to be in any language.

It’s about citizens from countries like Poland, Italy, France, and even England, who think voting Yes is the best way to ensure Scotland stays in the EU. The intention is clear. In a week when David Cameron’s side of the Westminster coalition is again on the rack over Europe, we are being urged to remember that Scotland is different. Less xenophobic. More in touch with Europe and the world.

But suppose Lords Lawson & Lamont and the rest of the Tory malcontents have their way and there is an in-out vote on Europe this side of the next UK election. How do you sell an independent Scotland that, on the one hand, wants to stay within the EU but, on the other, wants a formal sterling monetary union with the rest of the UK?

Over on the Better Together website, where the biggest upcoming event appears to be a ceilidh in Banchory, there’s an interactive map of Scotland where, by clicking on each blob, you can listen to a video clip of why that person wants to stay part of the UK. I tried all the blobs covering everywhere on the mainland north of Inverness. Sadly, not a Northern Scot in view. All these misplaced voices were from Glasgow.

Better Together’s latest blog is about the UK’s integrated energy market and how it helps us harness natural resources and share risks more effectively. A third of the UK’s green energy subsidy spent in Scotland, only a tenth raised from the bills of consumers living here. With most energy users most concerned about how to pay ever-rising bills, it’s not at all clear to me what impact, if any, stories like that will have on the referendum.

Of course, with 495 days still to go, all sorts of things could intervene. There is plenty of time for the unpredictable to happen. But, on what we know so far, the Yes camp still has a growing mountain to climb, even to snatch a narrow victory. Right now, if the latest polls are to be believed, opinion is hardening (fewer don’t knows) and the gap between Yes and No has widened, especially among women. Over all, No now leads Yes by nearly two to one.

In some ways, the main advocates of change, the SNP, have only themselves to blame. They opted to play this very long game, counting on their accumulating record in running a devolved Scottish government responsibly and well as a sure foundation from which to win the trust of a majority of Scots, when it came to taking the next big step. They did not know, nor did the rest of us, that that long march would be overshadowed by lengthening years of austerity, as much of the western world struggled to extricate itself from arguably the most profound economic crisis since the 1930s.

In another age, all that pain might have been a cue for embracing a fresh start. But economic uncertainty in the twenty-teens has persuaded millions of people to err on the side of caution, not build brave new beginnings. If fewer and fewer people are willing to change house every few years, wouldn’t the idea of building a new independent nation state prove a bit more daunting?

Clearly SNP strategists sensed that mood. That’s presumably why, as they began to flesh out what their new Scotland would look like, so much of it began to resemble the old Scotland we were being urged to leave behind. In the spirit of their 1970s slogan It’s Scotland’s oil, it’s now to be Scotland’s Queen, Scotland’s pound sterling and Scotland’s Bank of England, Scotland’s Nato, Scotland’s National Lottery and so on.

But the more things are promised to stay much the same, the more voters are wondering what all the fuss is about. One of the problems with such a protracted campaign is the endless opportunities it provides for opponents to probe the complex mechanics of making it all work. And when the answers emerge, that’s where some of the shine has begun to peel off the SNP’s momentum.

Last weekend, Scotland’s first minister wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday, which the SNP promoted as him “debunking myths over the currency”. Alex Salmond called the pound sterling “a jointly-owned asset we are entitled to inherit”. And he warned that, if the UK government refused to share that or other assets, “the only logical extension to that argument is that an independent Scotland will not inherit any share of the UK’s debts”.

If that’s a threat, and it sounds like one, it’s a very stupid one. Having constructed a case for independence that stresses inter-dependence and sharing of assets and risks, he now seems to be telling the world an independent Scotland would pick and choose which liabilities it honours. The IMF and the OECD, not to mention the currency markets and the rating agencies, might have something to say about that.

Things could have been very different. When plans for an independence referendum were first being laid, some of us argued for a two-pronged referendum. First a popular vote seeking approval for the majority SNP government to open independence talks with Westminster. That could have been done within the first year of this Holyrood administration.

If the Scottish people had said yes to such talks, all those issues that are currently the subject of claim and counter-claim, threat and counter-threat, would by now be the substance of formal negotiations between Edinburgh and London. Whatever package then emerged would have been put to a second vote of the Scottish electorate. We, the people, would have had the final say.

That idea was brushed aside by both the SNP and the unionist parties. Adding other constitutional options to a single referendum got more of their attention. But if present trends persist and Scotland does vote No in September 2014, the SNP will only have its own strategy to blame. That’s the long and the short of it.