Can rivals become team players for a united UK?

AS THE campaign against independence gears up, Political Editor Ian Swanson looks at how Labour, Lib Dems and Tories will work together

IT may not be Euro 2012, but top political players who usually find themselves opposing each other are putting aside their normal colours to unite in a common goal.

Key Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat figures are joining forces in Better Together, the campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, which will be launched in Edinburgh on Monday.

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Organisers deliberately avoided a title such as Britain United because of the football connotations – they need to build up their support among male voters, not alienate fans for whom United is a rival club.

Labour’s former chancellor Alistair Darling will take centre stage with former Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie and ex-Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy at the launch at Napier University’s Craiglockhart campus.

They say they have a positive message about how Scotland benefits from being part of the UK and they believe they can secure a majority against independence in the referendum in autumn 2014.

The pro-independence Yes campaign quickly ran into trouble after its launch last month. There was scepticism about stars such as Alan Cumming and Brian Cox, both based in America, speaking out on what should happen in Scotland.

A picture of cheering supporters on its website turned out to be a stock advertising photo also used to promote Butterfly Snacks.

Green leader Patrick Harvie, who shared the platform with Alex Salmond at the launch, distanced his party from the campaign, saying the SNP had failed to do the “relationship-building” needed for a joint campaign.

Then it emerged Nationalists had been advised to avoid using the word “independence” because it is associated with risk.

Earlier this week a new poll also showed a slump in the Yes support – despite using the SNP’s preferred question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Some 55 per cent of Scots were against independence while 32 per cent were in favour.

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It provides an encouraging backdrop for the Better Together launch but the pro-UK campaign could still face a rough ride.

Mr Darling, MP for Edinburgh South West, is an authoritative figure with the experience and credibility to take on the SNP and its allies over the economics of independence, which is surely bound to be one of the most crucial battlegrounds.

Ms Goldie and Mr Kennedy are both politicians who are more popular than their parties. But there are not many more Tories or Lib Dems who could be used too prominently in the campaign without having a negative effect. One source says David Cameron will probably make some appearances north of the Border “because he’s Prime Minister and it would be extraordinary if he didn’t”. But the same source adds: “Why would we bring Nick Clegg up? He would just lose us votes.”

Better Together also has the problem that while the three parties backing it are united on stopping independence and preserving the UK, they do not agree on what they want that UK to look like. So what exactly are people voting No voting for?

David Cameron has talked about the possibility of more powers for Holyrood if Scots reject independence, but won’t say what they might be. Labour has set up a commission to consider extending devolution, but it won’t report until next year. The Lib Dems have always believed in a federal UK.

A senior insider in Better Together insists the question of more powers should only be decided once the main issue – in or out of the UK?– has been settled and says the SNP is now talking up the idea of a second question because it believes it cannot win independence but could claim a vote for “more powers” as a partial victory. “I think they are running scared,” he adds.

Polling for the pro-UK campaign shows young people are more likely than other older voters to support independence, but no majority for independence in any age group and a positive reaction to the idea of being part of the UK.

However, there are two-and-a-half years of this campaign ahead and no-one is claiming the game is over yet.