Euan McColm: Don’t abandon all hope just yet

WHAT a wonderful feeling is hope. It’s so much better than fear, and the great news is that there’s an endless supply, what with hope’s insistence of springing eternal.

The Yes campaigns appropriation of the word was its smartest move. Picture: Getty
The Yes campaigns appropriation of the word was its smartest move. Picture: Getty

Yes, hope really is the most marvellous, universal thing. We all feel it, don’t we? Hope is something humans have in common. That shared feeling, however, doesn’t unite us. Hope is endlessly varied: selfish and selfless; logical and laughable; serious and frivolous. But, whatever its complexion, hope belongs to us all.

Unless, that is, we’re to believe the most senior figures in the campaign for Scottish independence, who have redefined hope to mean support for the break-up of the United Kingdom.

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In advance of the publication of the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon explained that the document would represent the moment that fear came head-to-head with hope. In the days that followed, the SNP continued with the theme: if you believed in the existence of hope, then a Yes vote next September was the only rational response.

The Yes campaign’s appropriation of the word (indeed, of the very concept of) hope was its smartest move. In terms of “mood music”, any political campaign worthy of the name wants to be the one offering the positive outcome. The nationalist movement was ably assisted in its commandeering of hope by the Better Together campaign which, foolishly let slip that its anti-independence strategy – of sowing doubt about SNP plans – was known by its staff and campaigners as “project fear”.

As things stand, the idea that Yes = hope seems to have some momentum. And, in styling itself as a beacon of optimism, the SNP is being given some leeway by the failure of the No campaign to reflect the hopes (and not just the fears) of those who want Scotland to remain within the Union.

This weakness from the unionists continues to allow statements of hope to be given by the nationalists in answer to difficult questions. We saw this happen in the Scottish Parliament this week.

The independence White Paper – at 670 pages – is a long and detailed document. But it does not, despite the passionate assertion of First Minister Alex Salmond, provide answers to all of the questions thrown up by his plan to break-up the UK. This truth was illustrated perfectly during an exchange between Salmond and Labour’s Johann Lamont at First Minister’s Question Time at Holyrood on Thursday.

The White Paper deals with the contentious issue of whether an independent Scotland would become a member of the European Union by stating that it would. Inconveniently, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy spoke up to deny that was the case. Scotland, he said, would have to negotiate entry to the EU and the outcome of those negotiations was far from certain.

Rajoy’s comments threw up – yet again – the prospect that a post-referendum, independent Scotland might, depending on how those negotiations went, have to join the euro and lose out on the EU budget rebate. Salmond replied, quoting a letter from one Maria Tenreiro, an official in the European Commission’s secretariat general which stated it would be “legally possible” for Scotland to negotiate its EU membership after a Yes vote but while still a member of the soon-to-be-departed UK.

A reasonable assumption was that this was advice given directly to the Scottish Government. In fact, Tenreiro’s reassuring statement was lifted from a pro-independence website and edited to remove the crucial qualifying statement that the legal possibility of negotiating EU membership while within the UK would “imply a change of the treaties which could only be done by unanimity of all member states”.

Salmond, the champion of hope, must have hoped nobody would notice. When notice they did, the response was to criticise another attack by fear on hope.

Better Together must surely give up on its belief that being caught out on detail is enough to derail the First Minister or the Yes campaign. The No campaign fails to recognise the power of an optimistic message, whether it stands up to scrutiny or not, at its peril.

Doubt over SNP answers may be enough to consolidate the positions of those who are guaranteed to vote No in 2014, but there the “don’t knows” who will decide the outcome of the referendum may not be so easily persuaded.

A common complaint from voters is that there are not enough answers – from either side – about the implications of independence. The risk to the No side is that the endless to-ing and fro-ing on these matters of detail, these matters of “fact”, ends in a score draw.

That would make the emotional battle all the more important. And – whether or not the appropriation of hope by the SNP is dishonest or cynical – the nationalists have the wind behind them in this regard.

It’s baffling that Better Together is not using Labour thinkers, such as MPs Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, to help make a more positive case. Alexander has made some excellent speeches about how Scotland might be more progressive after a No vote. His colleagues have, so far, failed to use his considered interventions as the starting to point for a message that might inject some hope into the rejection of the SNP’s constitutional plans.

Salmond and Sturgeon are Scotland’s preeminent politicians. They have not created a narrative that says a Yes vote means hope by accident but by understanding the power of that message and having the skills to frame their arguments accordingly.

The polls may still give the No campaign a lead, but there are still 10 months to go until we’re asked to decide on Scotland’s future relationship with the UK. In that time, Better Together must articulate the real hopes of those who want both to remain in the Union and to see a more dynamic and fairer Scotland. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm