Peter Jones: Unionists without a united cause

Better Together compromised by party allegiances if referendum becomes a vote for or against Scotland, says Peter Jones

Victory at Bannockburn has fuelled Scottish writers imaginations over the centuries. Picture: Greg Macvean

Better Together’s campaign is, I think, in more trouble than either it or commentators such as myself have realised which, conversely of course, means that the Yes campaign is doing better than is apparent to outsiders. And the problem is historic and deep-rooted, which means that it cannot be easily fixed.

This thought occurred to me following a conversation with a Scottish Labour MP who is proud to be Scottish and cares very deeply about Scotland. Having analysed all the numbers, he thinks that on any rational, dispassionate basis, the economics of independence don’t add up and that an independent Scotland would struggle to maintain present standards of living.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

And yet, he said, he was surprised by the number of people he had talked to who saw the vote on 18 September as not being about that at all, but simply as a vote for or against Scotland. Though he didn’t say this, the implication is, as few Scots would want to vote against Scotland, that the Yes campaign might well win.

Thinking later about why this should be, I came to the conclusion that there is a very fundamental issue which Better Together has not really addressed. The problem was neatly summed up by novelist Allan Massie in a Scotsman review of Professor Robert Crawford’s panoramic view of Scottish literature, Bannockburns.

In it, Prof Crawford traces how that Scottish victory over the English 700 years ago has permeated Scottish writers’ imaginations over the centuries. And in the context of the referendum, he remarks that it is possible to assemble a regiment of pro-Yes authors, but barely a platoon of pro-No writers. In his review, Mr Massie explains the apparent dearth of pro-Union authors tersely: “The reason is that for such writers, the Union is a fact of life, not a cause.” In other words, writing about “what is” is a lot duller than the excitement of “what might be”.

Something of the same has long permeated political debate. Nationalism has been an undying cause that has attracted people who become very passionate about it. Its leaders constantly fuel that passion by seizing on every action of the UK government that they believe damages Scottish interests, which keeps those passions burning bright. On the other side of the fence, unionist leaders do not devote anything like the same attention to promoting the benefits of the Union.

Energy provides a good example. The SNP government has complained incessantly about the charges set by the UK regulator Ofgem for transmitting electricity over the grid, which are much higher for Scottish generators, especially in the north of Scotland.

Nationalist ministers do have a point. Although the charging regime has the quite rational and benign intention of promoting greater efficiency in electricity generation by encouraging more power plants to be built closer to the major market in the south of England, it conflicts with the UK government’s aim of promoting the development of renewables, the major resource for which is in Scotland.

Unionist politicians, anxious to be seen to be pro-Scottish, go along with this to some extent. And because they rarely promote the facts of the benefits that come to Scottish power companies and consumers from being an integrated part of the UK market, the impression that most people must get is that Scotland is being done down in some way.

According to a recent Treasury analysis, consumers in England and Wales contributed to Scotland through their 2012-13 bills £132.5 million for transmission network upgrades, about £200m in fees to Scottish generators because the grid could not take power they could produce, about £50m to cover the extra costs of supplying power to the sparsely-populated north of Scotland, and about £500m to support renewable generation. It amounts to about £800m a year being transferred from England and Wales to support renewable industry jobs in Scotland and which also keeps bills down.

Indeed, it is arguable that without this flow of money into Scotland, the country would not have the scale of the renewable industry it does have because £800m would be too high a cost for Scots, either as consumers or taxpayers, to bear. But you rarely hear this positive argument from unionist politicians.

I don’t think this is because they are lazy or ill-informed. Part of the problem is that the unionist parties, while they may be ostensibly collaborating in Better Together, are also competing with each other to win votes at the 2015 general election. Thus the Labour Party is unwilling to praise anything the current UK government is doing because it implies support for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

It is akin to the first period of SNP minority government between 2007-11 when in theory the administration could have lost myriad votes at Holyrood but lost only a few because of competition between the majority opposition parties.

The fact that the current UK government is Conservative-led creates another problem. This is not merely because Conservatism is still a toxic brand north of the Border. The difficulty is that much of what Better Together is saying resonates with memories of all the bad things that happened under Thatcherism.

Claims that independence will cause electricity bills to rise, financial companies and their jobs to depart, trade with the rest of Britain to dwindle, pensions to shrink, and so on, sound very much like the historical facts of the disappearance of large swathes of Scottish industry in the 1980s. Threats that something of the same might happen again might, on rational inspection, have quite a lot of truth in them. But to many Scottish voters, I suspect that they look like the same old uncaring British establishment ganging up on Scotland, trying to do the country down.

And because Alex Salmond keeps saying that Scotland will be the 14th richest country in the world, that there is loads of oil left, and so on, people may also believe that all these threatened bad things cannot possibly be true. Mr Salmond keeps slamming Better Together for its negativity. He is absolutely right. The No campaign needs to start, not just making the positive case for the Union, but also refilling the void that the political belief of unionism has become. Otherwise the vote will become for or against Scotland, and it is pretty clear how that will go.