Andy Maciver: Make your mind up time for the vote

In September next year Scotland will vote in the referendum to decide among many other things, the flag that will fly above our institutions. Picture: PA
In September next year Scotland will vote in the referendum to decide among many other things, the flag that will fly above our institutions. Picture: PA
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Most Scots want constitutional change, however the last thing those who fear uncertainty need is not a decisive vote for or against independence, but a narrow No, writes Andy Maciver

It IS curious that, during a process which is likely to lead to the most substantial constitutional change for three centuries, both sides in this independence referendum debate are downplaying the gravity of the change which is coming our way.

The Better Together campaign, despite some sporadic but significant interventions making the case for greater devolution to Holyrood, remains focused largely on arguments for the status quo and setting out the risks of change; arguing for what they see as the solidity and certainty of the UK.

Yes Scotland, or perhaps more accurately the SNP, in an attempt to soften its message for voters with British sympathies, has increasingly talked down the scale of change resulting from a Yes vote in 2014; don’t worry too much, you’ll still have the pound, the Queen, the EU and the BBC, and if you want you can still call yourself British.

These arguments have found some traction, and have pulled the wool over the eyes of many people.

There are a number of large companies, for example, which seem to think that in the event of a No vote they’ll get “business as usual”. We saw this sentiment expressed by PricewaterhouseCoopers chairman, Ian Powell, recently, in a blunder which would (or should) have had his Scottish public affairs team lifting their jaws off the floor.

But we shouldn’t let either side fool us. Yes or No in September 2014, it is clear that major constitutional change is desired by the people of Scotland and is, therefore, likely to arise.

In most respects, there is little to fear from this. The overwhelming concern of most individuals, businesses and organisations when it comes to this independence referendum is uncertainty. And so, at the forefront of our ambitions for September 2014 should be to obtain a clear, unequivocal and certain result which removes indefinitely this issue from mainstream national debate.

How do we do it? There are two ways. The first is a “Yes” vote in favour of independence, which remains entirely possible.

MOST people – even some Unionist ultras – accept that Scotland is perfectly capable of surviving as an independent nation if it wishes to do so. Any country with good natural resources and good people (which we have), and good economic and social policy (which we can get) can serve its people and contribute to the world. Scotland is no different.

The second option is a substantial victory for the “No” campaign, something in the order of 75/25.

It is probable that this can only be achieved by the UK government and the pro-UK parties co-ordinating an offer of a significant increase in the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament before the referendum. With public opinion highly favourable in polling conducted on the issue, this would effectively end the chances of the Yes campaign.

Again, we have every reason to believe that such a constitutional change could be a success.

The countries which work best are those in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the people, and a movement towards a federal UK with Scottish local authorities in turn taking significant power from Holyrood would be a perfectly viable and enduring settlement.

However, arguably the most meaningful and enduring impact of either of these changes would be on the structure and composition of our politics and our political parties. Scottish politics is hopelessly broken, and both individuals and businesses would surely welcome the pressing of the reset button.

We have five parties represented in Holyrood, which in itself is fine. Indeed, the electoral system is a solid one which allows a mix of views and requires a reasonable degree of consensus (at least before 2011).

However, the policies espoused by those five parties represent only a slither of the cake of Scottish public opinion, and it is that which has contributed to the lack of genuine change under devolution. In policy terms, there is almost nothing between the SNP and Labour other than the flag under which they ply their trade – both are parties of the Left which believe in state-centralised supply and demand of public services with an antipathy to lowering taxation (although the SNP would perhaps argue that point in respect of business taxation). Between them, they occupy 80 per cent of the seats in Holyrood.

Further to the Left is the Green Party, which has to all intents and purposes shut up shop as an environmental movement and is now the foremost elected advocate of radical socialism.

BROADLY in the centre, with the occasional flirtation towards the liberal-right are the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Both have some alternative ideas, and some MSPs on each side play the cards they’ve been dealt rather well. However, in the grand scheme of things both parties broadly subscribe to what has become a social-democratic consensus in post-devolution Scotland.

Even if they did have a radically different agenda, with only 15 per cent of Holyrood seats between them, they are a world away from doing anything about it.

Contrary to what many Scottish political commentators attempt to drive into public consciousness, this lack of diversity is not what individuals and businesses in Scotland are looking for.

Much like south of the Border and in most other advanced countries, there are two large and relatively equal groups of voters in Scotland: people who can be broadly described as socialist or social democrat, and those who could broadly be described as liberal (with a small “l”).

This is reflected clearly in social attitudes surveys. In those businesses up and down the country, large and small, which are making the money to pay for the public sector, the latter view is particularly common despite its lack of representation in Holyrood.

Such a realignment of Scottish politics after 2014 would be good news for everyone other than the vested interests on all sides of the current set-up. And is entirely possible, so long as the referendum result is a decisive call for either independence or more devolution.

THERE will be no better time for the creation of a series of political parties which better represent the views of real people rather than of politicians and commentators.

So the danger for those who fear uncertainty is not a Yes vote, nor a decisive No vote. It is a “Narrow No”.

A “Narrow No”, something closer than 65/35, would inevitably lead to a protracted period of sameness, with the SNP retaining a significant electoral advantage at Holyrood and, perfectly understandably and correctly, bringing the independence issue back to the table in the short- to medium-term.

In the process, real debate on real issues – such as how we deliver public services and how we pay for our ageing population – would continue to play second-fiddle in the 
snake-pit of constitutional affairs. For individuals, families, small businesses, charities and large corporates, this is a doomsday scenario.

Scotland can’t afford another decade or more of wrangling over the constitution.

After 2014, we need to stop talking about which country we should live in, and start talking about how to run it.

• Andy Maciver is director of Message Matters, a strategic communications consultancy