Henry McLeish: Unionists sunk by a perfect storm?

Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Conservatism in London could be a bigger threat to the Union than nationalism in Edinburgh. Picture: Jane BarlowUkip leader Nigel Farage. Conservatism in London could be a bigger threat to the Union than nationalism in Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Conservatism in London could be a bigger threat to the Union than nationalism in Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
The rise of the political right south of the Border coupled with complacency among the unionist parties may sink the Better Together campaign, warns Henry McLeish

The Union politics of division and discontent, in the form of Tory extremism, are colliding with the Scotland politics of difference and diversity, seeking to build a new Scotland. This will be the new battleground of the referendum campaign. The Tories and much of the unionist establishment seem to be indirectly hastening the break-up of Britain.

On the other hand, Scotland is enjoying difference and diversity and, heading in another direction, will want more freedom and change if the political menu being served up by Westminster becomes so unpalatable. Conservatism in London could be a much bigger threat to the Union than nationalism in Edinburgh.

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Why? Let us start with Nate Silver, a political forecaster and election guru. Described as a 34-year-old Delphic oracle, he has written a remarkable new book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he distinguishes between the noise and clutter surrounding major issues and the true signals we need to detect if we are to understand what is actually going on. The remarkably complacent Better Together campaign would be wise to heed the words of Silver, who told this newspaper: “Scotland will only vote for independence if major crisis hits England.” Could there be a game-changing scenario that could have a decisive impact on the result and decide Scotland’s constitutional future? What are the signals the political parties should be picking up?

A crisis engulfing England is unlikely to happen, but instead a series of smaller political shocks could coalesce and impact on Scottish voters and provide a real tipping point for those increasingly disenchanted with the political and ideological direction of the Union and the toxic politics that are fast becoming the hallmark of this Tory government. The coalition now exists in name only. The poisoning of Union politics is a real possibility.

So, what could happen? This perfect storm of issues, events and toxic politics is brewing not in Scotland but in London, at Westminster and Conservative Party HQ, which, over the next 12 months, could engulf the referendum campaign and impact the mood and mindset of a nation, change the political psychology of how Scots might vote and ultimately determine the outcome of the vote.

Remarkably, the No campaign seems oblivious to what might happen or is simply ignoring the signals, which could blow the battle for Scotland wide open. A recent headline seemed to capture the scenario facing Scots – “Independence is risky, but Union is even scarier”. There is little doubt Scots would not like to see their future through the prism of the current UK government and their fear this could be their shared destiny within the Union at Westminster. This is the nightmare scenario.

Better Together continues to use the fear factor as its major weapon, with a campaign so thoroughly negative as to be in danger of alienating many Scots who want to vote for the Union but feel increasingly insulted by endless threats of famine, pestilence, plague and aliens if they dared vote for independence.

The unionist campaign has combined the hard and aggressive politics of a discredited Westminster with no vision, no narrative, no idea of Scotland the nation, and no concept of how the role of Scots and Scotland could be enhanced within a modern Union. This has caused frustration and anger, which may lead Scots to turn their backs on an increasingly divided Britain, spurred on by the rise of the political right; disillusionment with Westminster and unionist politics; an English nationalism waking up; the toxic politics of the Tories and their “Tea Party” allies Ukip; the tearing up of the post-war social and economic consensus; a Labour Party continuing to lack confidence; a Britain consumed by economic greed and inequality; a Britain that is increasingly intolerant and unfair; a Tory government devoid of decency, compassion and beyond any notion of the common good; a Tory party revealing its real disinterest in Scotland, and a Union in which there is a growing divide and where political and constitutional differences are widening.

These are the issues that may determine Scotland’s referendum. Why would Scots want to be part of this future when other choices exist? The number of undecided voters should be a wake-up call to the unionist parties so clearly struggling with post-devolution politics.

The reckless behaviour of the Conservative government at Westminster could be the catalyst for a shift in the public mood, especially at a time when Scotland is much more wrapped up in nationality and identity and less concerned with class and traditional political allegiances. Unionist politics in Scotland is in crisis. Labour is hesitant, lacking confidence and appears to be devoid of a narrative for Scotland’s constitutional future and lacking a vision for Scotland, in or out of the Union. The SNP is the dominant political force in Scottish politics and faces little opposition, despite being in power for more than six years. Despite the Nationalists’ populist and successful approach to Holyrood politics, they have failed to win over many more Scots to their cause of independence. Could all of this be about to change if conservatism and a right-wing government continue to reinforce political difference north of the Border and to view with a contemptuous neglect the idea of Scotland the nation, not just another part of the north-south divide or of an increasingly divided Britain?

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The prospects for Labour will also figure prominently in the minds of Scots as we move closer towards the general election in May 2015. The prospect of a Conservative government or a coalition with the Lib Dems or Ukip remains a real possibility. Many Scots will be more reassured about the Union if Labour’s prospects of victory in 2015 seem real but will feel less positive if doubts remain about who runs Britain over the next five years.

Will Labour be able to spell out clearly what it stands for? Labour has to reconnect with the electors and show willingness to transform a tired and dated Union and set out a new direction for a modern, federated, flexible and fairer one, where maximum powers are available to Scotland and the English question is addressed.

Labour in Scotland has to engage with identity and nationality, difference and diversity, and start to believe in Scotland as a nation. Labour should be arguing for a Union worthy of its name and where each country can work out its own destiny. Saving the Union by respecting Scotland’s demands and ambitions is a small price to pay for stable politics. If this is not a price the unionist parties can pay, Scottish voters may have no option but to vote to end the historic links and build a new Scotland.

Scots want to know what happens on the day after the ballot. Unionist parties blocked a second question on the ballot paper and are now lumbered with a Union that shows no interest in changing. The electors will be offered a choice of two extremes, independence or status-quo unionism, and may be irritated by the fact that Labour, having not supported a second question, is showing little interest or urgency over providing an acceptable alternative to independence.

The advance of the right poses a real threat to the Union and Scotland’s role in it. This scenario will probably embrace a lurch towards a form of English nationalism, combined with the fear and hate and scapegoat mentality being targeted at welfare benefit claimants, immigrants and foreigners. The issue of Europe will be divisive and Scotland may wish to have nothing to do with the reckless adventure of a proposed EU referendum planned for 2017.

For the unionist campaign, the political landscape is covered with growing uncertainty about the integrity of the Union and the instability being created by right-wing politics, a scary government at Westminster, a Labour Party still looking for purpose and direction, and the complete inability of Westminster to comprehend the new mood of Scotland.

The people of Scotland are well ahead of their politicians. Scottish electors may see a softer, more intelligent politics, where identity, nationality, humanity, fairness, equality, virtue, compassion, tolerance and diversity matter and may feel that one-nation politics might only be achieved in Scotland as the Union fails to deliver. Better Together seems hollow in a divided Britain. The signals are clear, but is anyone listening?

• Henry McLeish is a former Labour first minister.