Alex Massie: Mystery surrounds the SNP message

If the Nationalists are to win independence, they will need a stronger, clearer, more inclusive message, writes Alex Massie

If the Nationalists are to win independence, they will need a stronger, clearer, more inclusive message, writes Alex Massie

AS POLITICS returns after an all-too brief summer hiatus, it is striking how the battle for Scotland’s future has changed since it began in earnest in January. Then, Alex Salmond and the SNP were undoubtedly setting the pace. Momentum – an intangible yet important element in politics – appeared to be with the SNP. The unionist response to the challenge offered by the SNP was slow, sometimes confused and evidently unsure of itself.

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Time passes and the picture changes. Unionism has enjoyed a good summer, making up some lost ground. Suddenly, it is the Nationalists who have a worried grimace on their faces. Indeed, as matters stand at present, some influential Nationalists worry – in private – that the campaign is slipping away from them. The onus to persuade Scots is on the SNP. As matters stand they have not done so.

At the very least, the Nationalists’ momentum appears to have been checked. Salmond has been very quiet this summer. The British state has formidable resources to deploy against the SNP. Most of the media is unpersuaded that independence is either necessary or likely to advance Scotland’s interests. Moreover, for every Nationalist given airtime by the BBC, there are two or sometimes three unionists offered the opportunity to question and criticise the SNP’s vision. It is not a completely level playing field.

Even so, the SNP’s message has become oddly blurred. What is independence actually designed to achieve? For months now, the party has reassured voters that much of what they hold dear about Britain will remain unchanged post-independence. The “social union” is a real thing and Nationalists are surely right to stress that, in many ways, it would remain strong even after independence.

Yet the more the SNP reassure voters that less may change than they fear, so it also weakens the case for change at all. Gradualism can grind to a halt. Moreover, while there is an undoubted “positive” argument for independence, the Nationalists are happy to offer a negative case too. Independence, they suggest, is required to protect Scotland from Conservatives.

Only independence can shield Scotland from the rough wooing practices of a Tory government in London. This is a thin case, not least since it is hard to argue with any seriousness that the Cameron-Clegg government, misguided as it may or may not be, is any kind of oppressor.

Of course, protecting Scotland from the Tories was a central plank in the case for devolution, too. If that argument was persuasive 20 years ago, it must, with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, be devalued now.

This has not prevented the SNP from trotting out the same old tunes and playing them in the same old style. Just this week, Bob Doris, deputy convenor of Holyrood’s health and sport committee, unwittingly demonstrated the 
limits to this anti-Tory approach.

Noting a report in the Financial Times suggesting English hospitals will endure spending cuts for the rest of this parliament, Mr Doris reassured Scots that “Scotland’s NHS is already completely independent and remains true to its founding principles. The kind of terrible situation we are currently seeing south of the Border could never be allowed to happen in Scotland.”

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By his own admission, Scotland is already sheltered from Tory policies. It follows that, logically, independence isn’t necessarily needed to guard Scotland against those awful Tories. Devolution has already built that wall.

Perhaps more importantly, a stridently anti-Tory independence campaign is, in essence, a negative campaign. The SNP is at its best when it is at its most generous. Suggesting that Tory voters – and Labour voters, too, come to that – are in thrall to parties inherently, even inevitably, hostile to Scotland is insulting and counter-productive in equal measure. Insulting because it presumes – with an unbecoming and transparent arrogance – that the SNP has a monopoly on patriotic wisdom; counter-productive because the Nationalists need the support of voters who ordinarily endorse other parties on election day.

Some elections, such as George W Bush against John Kerry, are attritional campaigns in which victory is won by the side better able to get their troops to the polls. Others, such as Barack Obama against John McCain, are won by inspiration as well as perspiration. This referendum campaign is the latter type of contest. Nationalists cannot assume that their voters will be more enthusiastic or better motivated and organised than their opponents.

The SNP’s victories in the past two Holyrood campaigns were deserved. They ran better organised, more uplifting campaigns than their opponents. But these were elections in which only one in two registered voters bothered to cast their ballot. The referendum vote will be different. If, as psephologists anticipate, at least 75 per cent of voters take part in the plebiscite, then, evidently, the contest will be decided by a quite different electorate to that which has supported the SNP in Holyrood elections. Furthermore, many of these extra voters will be people who have never, or only rarely, previously voted for the Nationalists. If this is the case, the unionist campaign begins with a built-in advantage.

At present, Nationalist strategy seems to lurch between assuring those already persuaded that everything will change after independence and reassuring those presently unpersuaded that much less will really change than you imagine or fear. Each of these messages has some value; the difficulty is that they can easily become muddled. Campaigns need clarity and the SNP’s all-things-to-all-men risks leaving voters confused.

Nevertheless, this is a long game and we’re not even close to half-time yet. Perhaps this summer of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games will, in time, be perceived as Britannia’s last bow. A happy time when ties of history, culture and kin were celebrated across the United Kingdom before the partnership is dissolved forever. Certainly many English people fear this may be the case.

When unionists stress the worth of these ties, they are, whether Nationalists accept this or not, making the oft-sought “positive case” for the Union.

Nationalists may dismiss this as sepia-tinted and sentimental nostalgia; nevertheless, it remains a powerful and, in its way, optimistic argument for Union. Our island story is a good story. It is certainly preferable to foolish unionist scaremongering.

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But if the Nationalists have been becalmed this summer, unionists should not presume the wind will not return to fill the SNP’s sails. Even after six months of campaigning, we are still in the calm before the storm. But if the Nationalists are to prevail, they need a stronger, clearer, more inclusive message than they are delivering at present.