Duncan Hamilton: ‘No’ campaign must get its act together to win hearts and minds

OH WHAT a tangled web they weave, as Sir Walter Scott might have reflected. For despite some positive signs of life amongst the more reflective elements of Unionism, and despite a flurry of activity, articles, speeches and statements, we are essentially none the wiser as to what positive alternative to independence will emerge from the No campaign.

First, to the Royal Society of Edinburgh where I joined a panel to debate the issues with Alistair Darling, Malcolm Rifkind and Nicola Sturgeon. Amidst the usual exchanges a few things of importance emerged. Alistair Darling embracing the prospect of devolving both income tax and corporation tax was welcome, and tells a great deal about how far this debate has come in a short time. Further, there seemed to be consensus that any constitutional set up is not an end in itself, but rather a means of improving the lives and opportunities of the people of Scotland. Again, after years of being told that nationalists were obsessed by the constitution whilst the rest of the world wanted to talk about jobs, public service and economic growth, the acceptance that those issues are unavoidably linked is real progress.

But what stood out most of all was the gaping hole in the Unionist case. It is no reflection on either Alistair Darling or Malcolm Rifkind (both able men of substance), but it became crystal clear that engaging in this debate in opposition to independence without an alternative proposal is simply not sustainable. That, now, is the question which dominates this debate. It will not go away.

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The Prime Minister has told us that if we vote No, there is something else on the table. What is that proposal? Malcolm Rifkind seemed to suggest nothing more than the Scotland Bill was on the table at all – which, if true, makes the David Cameron intervention a few weeks ago all the more bizarre. We need a definitive answer from the Prime Minister, and now.

Alistair Darling went so far as to indicate that he didn’t want to define devo-max, precisely because to do so would be to make it more likely to be on the ballot. Reflecting on that position in the cold light of day, it seems an odd one. Have we really reached the stage that the determination not to give ground to the Scottish Government on a second question is so rigid that it trumps the clear majority will for a devo-max question to be on the ballot? That represents an abdication of political leadership and is a position that simply cannot maintain until 2014.

More widely, it became obvious to me that Unionists agree on only one thing – that independence is bad. Beyond that, there is no agreement whatsoever. Whilst Alistair Darling sounded more reflective and flexible, Malcolm Rifkind couldn’t help reverting to comparisons between Alex Salmond and Robert Mugabe. Add to that the outstanding (in the sense of not being completed) work of Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems, the new policy commission from the Labour Party and the mass of confusion that is David Cameron, and it seems obvious that there may be difficulties keeping the campaign, never mind the Kingdom, united.

Charles Kennedy wrote yesterday that the breadth and diversity of the No campaign was its strength. I beg to differ – a campaign which can’t agree on an agreed alternative to the independence proposition is reduced to simply standing in the way of change.

Enter devo-plus. To understand its importance, the Scottish Parliament is now responsible for 60 per cent of public spending in Scotland but raises only 8 per cent of the taxes. The Scotland Bill would raise that to 17 per cent. Under devo-plus it would be 60 per cent. We are therefore talking about something altogether more substantial than the tinkering so far.

Certainly, at first glance it looked to me like a big moment. But then it became apparent from media interviews that it was that most frustrating of political entities – a campaign with no means of delivery.

The campaign explicitly does not want to get a question on the ballot, which may be a necessary concession to the current position of the Unionist parties in order to get them on board, but to the rest of us seems unfathomable.

Why, having finally developed a viable middle option with majority support, should this campaign restrict its ambition to attempting to influence the main Unionist political parties? Advocates of devo-plus should have the courage to campaign for it directly with the voters. Trust me, the minute it is seen to be popular the political parties will get on board. Trying simply to channel everything through the very parties which have so far failed to provide leadership is a flawed strategy.

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All of which tells me that Alex Salmond is right to wait this out. The twists and turns, the new commissions and mysterious Prime Ministerial offers – they are all part of the growing realisation amongst Unionists that some form of devo-plus is now certain. The independence position needs more detail as the campaign unfolds, but benefits hugely from clarity of concept. By contrast, the total failure amongst the No campaign to agree and articulate a positive alternative cannot be sustained. Alex Salmond can, and should, play the long game.