Lesley Riddoch: All quiet on the independence front

The SNP is failing to fight back positively in public against the negativity of the No campaign, writes Lesley Riddoch.
Alex Salmond at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign last May. Picture: GettyAlex Salmond at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign last May. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign last May. Picture: Getty

“Where are all the protests?” A Finnish camera crew filming in Edinburgh last week was mightily surprised to find the bold, UK-boat-rocking, independence-threatening Scots tucked up indoors safe from nasty Arctic blasts. Where were the massive demonstrations – as there have been in Spain, Greece and Cyprus – over austerity? Why no posters or banners? Why so little evidence of passion, anger or a united sense of purpose? Is independence a dead duck?

You could try to explain that Scots aren’t very demonstrative if you weren’t addressing Finns, who have cornered the world market in sangfroid.

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Sisu is almost the only Finnish word to have made it into English – accurately describing the determination, endurance and resilience of a nation that became independent without a second thought after the Russian Revolution in 1917, only to plunge immediately into Europe’s bloodiest civil war and a herculean struggle against the Russian Red Army which ultimately ended in a decade of reparations.

When even the taciturn Finns are surprised at Scottish reserve, something significant must be afoot. Is the independence campaign quiet, real quiet, too quiet? Or working away quietly at local level, or permanently on the back foot, or all of the above?

A weekend poll suggests the wheels are coming off the cart for Alex Salmond whose “indy lite” strategy is failing to galvanise the masses.

The YouGov survey, commissioned by Better Together, shows 62 per cent of Scots unconvinced by Alex Salmond’s case for independence – including a quarter of SNP voters.

Of course some SNP voters in 2011 were traditional Labour supporters looking for drive, competence and social progress, not independence. It’s not surprising they are still undecided. And others unconvinced by Alex Salmond may be completely convinced about independence. They will hardly vote No in protest over his “indy lite” appeal to floating voters.

• Alex Salmond accused of ‘playing it straight’ in independence campaign

The question is whether the debate has stalled – and whether the SNP’s “let a thousand flowers blossom” strategy is failing to overcome the relentless negativity of the No Campaign. The SNP and the Yes Campaign are relying on tailored individual messages to make independence appeal to different social groups. What may coax a non-voting single mum struggling with childcare costs in Glasgow to consider a Yes vote, for example, may not motivate a childless pensioner living in Strichen.

But while the SNP are busily micro-managing the message, all voters are being bombarded with daily volleys of negativity from the massed artilleries of Darling, Osborne, Alexander et al.

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Where is the return of fire? Indeed, where is the strategy to have more than a political re-enactment of the Somme, with each side slugging it out?

The nationalist cavalry is coming, apparently, in November, when recent difficulties raised over post-independence currency, economic policy, pensions, EU membership, welfare policy and NATO membership will be countered by big, beefy expert reports.

In the meantime, morale is faltering – but that may be no fault of Alex Salmond. Scotland is entering politically uncharted territory in 2014. No Nordic nation approached its own “breakaway” moment with such substantial equivocation. The Irish struggle was hesitant, then bloody and unlikely to act as a template. The Quebecois are driven by language and culture – the Scots are not. The Catalans have grassroots support but no democratic mechanism.

Scotland’s independence movement is unique. How then should the campaign look 18 months from the finishing post? Frankly, who knows?

Some would like the SNP to change tack now, drop their “all things to all people” approach and publish a summer manifesto to demonstrate whether desirable policy goals can or cannot be met within the United Kingdom. That would focus minds wonderfully, get the Yes Campaign off the rebutting back foot, and allow democratic modification by other parties and civic groups.

Perhaps this is what’s being planned or perhaps – like the long-awaited Yes Campaign launch – the Big Reveal will be a disappointment.

Alex Salmond and the SNP appear to be caught between a rock and a hard place. If their future vision reveals an independent country similar to Scotland within the UK, none but the diehards will see any point in change.

On the other hand, a vision in which Scotland finally grasps the thistle of land reform, community control, de-centralisation, renewable energy, equality and co-operative housing might attract “red-green” voters but alienate those who currently benefit from the status quo. At some point the SNP must nail one set of political colours to the mast – I’m not convinced the time is now.

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What’s needed immediately is morale-building and visibility. Why has Alex Salmond not been on BBC Question Time head-to-head with George Osborne, Vince Cable or Danny Alexander? Never mind all the etiquette and rigmarole about who will debate with whom. Time is passing and voters deserve to hear single arguments conducted in single public arenas.

Where is the human story? Alex Salmond was once doing well as an oil economist in a big bank. He could have bitten his lip, dumped his unfashionable, nationalist views and kept taking the salary. He didn’t. Likewise John Swinney and other prominent nationalists were attracted to very conventional jobs. These were not losers, outsiders, marginalised men or wild eyed radicals. So why rock the boat?

Scottish voters still haven’t heard the personal story of these men and women without proselytising, slick messages, wiseguy asides, cleverly composed statistics or celebrity help. I want Alex Salmond to look right into the TV lens and tell me from his heart what persuaded him that Scotland can only progress without the rest of the UK.

It’s engagement that’s currently lacking, not a detailed post-2014 plan. That can come. As former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart puts it, Alex could “reassure people they are tough enough to do this rather than assure them everything will be OK”.

And here the Finns have something worth learning. Sisu does not means momentary courage, but the ability to sustain an action against the odds. You’ve either got that or you haven’t. Do the Scots? It’s not a question for Alex Salmond – it’s a question for ourselves.

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