Common sense suggests that referendums are bound to produce unusual alliances. Where there are two options on offer, it is inevitable that people of unlike minds on other issues will coalesce round each of them; strict party lines do not apply.
In defence of that thesis, I once earned a modest footnote in Scottish legal history by taking broadcasters to the Court of Session. That was during the 1979 referendum campaign when BBC and ITV planned to include party political broadcasts along the usual lines. On behalf of the Labour Vote No Campaign, I sought and obtained a ruling from the good Lord Ross that they should do no such thing. As a result, broadcasts were divided equally between the two sides of the argument and that is how it has been in subsequent referendums.
I feel sure that the Scottish Nationalists are now suitably grateful for my stance in defence of fair play, though they omitted to say so at the time.
To a surprising extent, the Scottish independence referendum will itself cross party lines. According to all polling, at least a third of people who vote Scottish Nationalist do not support independence, while there are significant minorities voting for unionist parties who do. All of these nuances should be reflected in the long run-up to a vote.
We should hear from SNP voters who do not want, in the last analysis, to break up the United Kingdom and, equally, there should be a voice from those who cannot thole Alex Salmond but would quite like to see an independent Scotland. If the campaign is run only on party lines, then it will be to the exclusion of these voices.
By the same token, it is not always possible to choose one’s bedfellows, who may arrive from unexpected directions. Rupert Murdoch, for example, seems to have arrived at Scottish separatism from the direction of Australia via Thatcherism, American citizenship and phone-tapping on an industrial scale. All UK parties are now competing, somewhat belatedly, to condemn his organisation and its vile methods. So the old rogue – if his Tweets are to be believed any more than his newspapers – has concluded that they have all outlived their usefulness and sought political asylum in Scotland. The break-up of Britain could be his last act of revenge on the political class that once cowered before him.
In response to courtship by Tweet, Murdoch has been given a warm embrace by his new hero, our First Minister. “Many people at home and abroad are expressing views on Scotland’s future,” he intoned, “and all contributions are welcome, including Mr Murdoch’s.” Not to mention, he might have added, the contribution of Mr Murdoch’s newspapers, soon to return to seven-day dissemination of truth and enlightment. But I do agree with the First Minister. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, whether mad or sane, weak or powerful, foreign or indigenous. As Mr Salmond so rightly put it, “all contributions are welcome, including Mr Murdoch’s”. How sweet!
Alas, the First Minister’s generosity of spirit did not extend to David Cameron, who visited Edinburgh last week and made a good speech. To the great irritation of the nationalists, who had their little cue cards ready, Cameron did not fall into any of the appointed traps. He was not patronising. He did not say that Scotland “could not survive” – actually, I don’t know anyone who ever has. He was self-effacing about his party’s weakness in Scotland.
He set out an intelligent, philosophical case for maintaining our place in the United Kingdom, which was there for his audience to take or leave. I had been asked to comment from a radio studio and said that many people across party lines would be glad that Mr Cameron had made this speech in the way he did. The nationalist who was on with me burbled happily about the disgrace of “supporting a Tory Prime Minister”.
It was actually quite a therapeutic moment because it clarified in my own mind the urgent necessity of facing down this kind of playground taunt. It is not necessary to go back to 1979 to find the SNP voting with the Tories when the party did so to historic effect. Much more recently, the SNP spent four years at Holyrood in informal alliance with the Tories, until it got its present majority.
Looking forward, the nature of a referendum on a constitutional issue inevitably means that people will arrive at the same conclusion from both left and right of the political spectrum. To pretend otherwise, or refuse to co-operate on that basis, is ridiculous. Not the least of Mr Cameron’s successes last week was, by eschewing partisanship, to make it a lot easier for people who might disagree with him about everything else to buy into that shared approach.
Each party should campaign in its own way. But there should also be cross-party campaigns with room for distinctive ideological threads and political perspectives within them – and the sooner the better. The Scottish public expects that display of grown-up pragmatism.
And let us unite on one principle – just as Rupert Murdoch has a right to contribute to this debate, so too does the Prime Minister of Britain. I hope that Mr Cameron will make many more such speeches, that others will follow him and I do not for one moment believe that the anti-separatist cause will suffer from “association” if they do it in the same spirit – quite the reverse.
The toxicity of the Tory brand in Scotland is a self-inflicted ailment which should not be confused with any delusion that the only people who hold right-of-centre opinions in Scotland are those who vote Tory. The irony is that large numbers of them vote SNP, mainly because they have nowhere else to go – but that does not make them natural separatists. That is a crucial audience for Mr Cameron to address. Anyway, for those of us who have always thought that politics should be about improving people’s lives and prospects, rather than arguing about constitutions, it is difficult to see anything that Holyrood is currently delivering which the Tories would not feel at home with – council cuts, low-paid workers’ pay freeze, further education cuts, and so on and so forth. It all sounds very familiar.
I have a simple faith that more and more voters will realise that the vast amounts of time, energy and political guile being devoted to a debate on the constitution which will not culminate for almost two and a half more years and that they will ensure it does not come at a very heavy price.
Just think where we might be if as much effort was going into creating jobs for school-leavers or improving the standards of education – neither of which depends on constitutional change and each of which is a lot more urgent.