Brian Monteith: Momentum moving towards No camp

The Better Together campaign has made mistakes, but it now seems to be well ahead in the race for votes. Picture: Neil Hanna
The Better Together campaign has made mistakes, but it now seems to be well ahead in the race for votes. Picture: Neil Hanna
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As the countdown to the vote begins, the unionists are getting their message over effectively, writes Brian Monteith

The clock is ticking down and with only 100 days from now until the referendum that will decide whether or not Scotland stays in the United Kingdom, the campaign with everything to do is the one seeking to bring about an irrevocable change. For all the claims and counter claims, the spin and exaggeration, the opinion polls have not moved a great deal since the launch of the Yes campaign.

Yes, there have been movements either way in the public mood, including what has been called a wobbly moment for the No campaign at the end of February when it looked like nationalists might have found some traction at last. But the generality of it all since the Yes campaign was launched appears to be only a slightly smaller gap between the No and Yes vote, with possibly a hardening against independence now beginning to take place.

More dauntingly for nationalists, the most recent IPSOS Mori poll showed the number of voters prepared to change their mind is now only 18 per cent, dropping some 12 points since September, making it far harder to overtake the No lead.

This is not to say Yes cannot yet win, but the fact that time is running out for Alex Salmond to provide some game-changing moment that will provoke a collective epiphany is evaporating. This may explain why the First Minister and his deputy have become more shrill, more aggressive and provocative in their statements. Unfortunately for the Yes campaign, while the constant chipping away at everything to do with London, Westminster, Whitehall and all the other euphemisms used to disguise their anti-English sentiments, helps to shore-up the core SNP vote, it does not broaden the appeal in a way that might find success with the electorate.

And make no mistake, this is no longer a broad Yes campaign, despite the very respectable efforts being made by the Greens and the more exotic varieties of the Scottish left, this is the SNP’s campaign and in particular it is being led Napoleon-like by the First Minister. A great political general with many creditable victories to his name he can claim to be, but Salmond is not, as Donald Dewar so often demonstrated, invincible.

The failure of Salmond and Sturgeon to talk up the Green candidate in the Euro elections was an example of this. Unfortunately for the nationalist movement, the SNP sees everything through its sharp partisan prism. Similarly, allowing Tommy Sheridan on a platform with an SNP MSP was another example of sidelining all the hard work done by Colin Fox and his comrades, merely to encourage 200 souls into a hall who had in any case most likely already made their minds up.

This is not to say the Better Together campaign has been smart. It is limited in its actions by having to work to a cross-party agenda and this has meant it has underplayed the positive message it could have been advocating far sooner about the United Kingdom. The whole of the UK is coming out of a great recession, and it is no surprise the mood about Britain is less certain, less positive. But it should be remembered that the mood in Southampton is much the same as it is in Shotts, and it is no different in Clydeside from what it is in Merseyside.

Combine an initial unquestioning acceptance of the UK-scepticism played up by the nationalists with the fact that Scotland voted Labour in the 2010 general election and you have at its heart a campaign strategy that believes being “positive” about Scotland in the UK must first require a programme for constitutional reform.

This is wrong-headed. Devolution remains unfinished and there is a dire need to make the Scottish Parliament more accountable to its people – but there is also unfinished business in other UK assemblies and parliaments, not least the House of Lords and the West Lothian question that new devolution proposals will actually exacerbate.

The argument has to be put that the United Kingdom – warts and all – is actually a country we should be proud of and happy to be in, that it is one whom many will continue to risk their lives to reach its shores, and a country that others around the world owe their lives to.

Better Together has undoubtedly struggled to defend the status quo when its main member and political force is the leading opposition party. It is caught having to put a negative message positively while so many of its activists feel sympathetic to the anti-Tory rhetoric of the nationalists. In practical terms this means that Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont are caught being unable to say that even with an occasional Tory coalition government the Union is worth it, when even many (I’d wager the majority) of Labour voters would accept that position.

Ironically, and magnanimously, David Cameron would have no compunction in saying that the Union is worth keeping even if Ed Miliband was to become prime minister. This difference is the weakness at the heart of Better Together that the SNP will continue to try and exploit.

Meanwhile, it is possible to believe that when we look back on it in April next year, as we face a general election with the Union intact and David Cameron fighting for his tenure as prime minister, that his leadership in pushing for more powers for Holyrood – powers that have trumped Labour’s offering and will undoubtedly become a key part of his general election manifesto – would be responsible for clinching the victory of the No campaign. Who would have thought that likely back in May 2011 or when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed in 2013?

Going into the last 100 days, the momentum is with the No campaign; it is now doing more to articulate the positive case for the existing United Kingdom and the three main unionist parties have substantial constitutional proposals to answer the demands for greater powers that we are repeatedly told the Scottish public wants. The No campaign tells us that remaining in the United Kingdom will mean the tangible change we have been asking for, while ironically the Yes campaign is left desperately trying to reassure us that independence will not be so different after all.

What then, beyond a “good” Commonwealth Games and a Bannockburn anniversary, has the Yes campaign left to play?