In an open letter to Alex Salmond, George Kerevan explains why he is concerned about next year’s referendum
When seeking to query your direction, Alex, I am always mindful that you are perhaps – barring Mrs Thatcher – the most successful politician in the UK of the last generation. With one tiny break, you’ve been leader of the SNP for nearly a quarter of a century. You’ve been First Minister of Scotland for longer than anyone else, and you did it by winning an absolute majority in a Holyrood parliament maliciously conceived to block such an event.
Yet I am worried about next year’s referendum, which is why I dare pen you this open letter. Worried not because of the polls, though these continue to show a double-digit lead for the No campaign. That can be fixed. Instead, I’m concerned because in these past few months literally dozens of Yes or Yes-leaning voters have confided to me that they are dispirited by the direction of the nationalist campaign. They have become downright de-motivated by what they see as a Yes campaign that lacks passion or any sense that we want to create a new nation that is qualitatively different from the UK in which we live now.
It’s not that these folk fear leaving behind a UK run by Old Etonians, unrepentant City spivs and a so-called People’s Party that is leagues to the right of “one nation” Tories following in the footsteps of Harold Macmillan. To most, the negative No campaign is downright insulting.
In fact, practically everyone I meet in Scotland’s chattering and professional classes – the circle I move in – would be happy to wave goodbye to the contemporary UK state, with its absurd global pretensions, its corrupt and petty Westminster politics, its little Englander attitude to Europe, its shallow, celebrity culture; and its bogus use of “austerity” to complete the destruction of the post-war welfare system. Even long-time Labour members I meet would trade Ed Miliband’s “austerity lite” for a radical new Scotland – though they still believe you, Alex, are the spawn of Satan.
Unfortunately all these folk feel you are not offering the vision to make the risks worthwhile. There is a constant refrain I hear – at conferences, at parties, from journalists after radio and TV interviews, from taxi drivers, in casual conversations in shops, and in plaintiff emails from the Scots Diaspora. It is this: “Why are they not telling us how Scotland will be different? Where are the big new ideas? Why is Salmond so quiet? When are they going to take off the gloves?”
The refrain usually goes on: “Why is Salmond treating us like children by trying to pretend there are no costs to independence? But it’s better to go for independence and try and change things – even if we fail – than be governed by Cameron or a fake Labour Party. We will follow leadership but we won’t be fed a line. If that’s what Salmond is up to, he’s no better than the Westminster eejits.”
Scotland is open to independence but can’t be sleepwalked into it, Alex. Let’s take a practical example – keeping the pound after independence.
There are very good reasons to retain sterling, especially to maintain business confidence at a time of upheaval. I’ve argued the sterling case till I’m blue in the face. Unfortunately, no-one is buying this idea. Intuitively, potential Yes voters grasp that controlling your own interest rate and exchange rate is crucial to economic independence from the City bankers, and to have any hope of transforming the Scottish economy.
Take another issue – the constitution of an independent Scotland. This figures not at all in the referendum discussion. Yet the rules by which the new Scotland operates lie at the very heart of the struggle for independence. Our new constitution will define who we are, what we want to achieve, and why we are tearing up the Union after three centuries. This is not some dry, secondary matter but the blueprint for revolution. The American War of Independence was won with words: Tom Pain’s Common Sense sold half a million copies in an America with a population at that time of only 2.5 million.
The problem is that there is precious little public argument allowed inside the nationalist camp – over the constitution or the grand themes of policy. The late Stephen Maxwell was slapped down by the SNP leadership for daring to suggest the party’s membership should be allowed to discuss and vote on such weighty matters. Result: a boring Yes campaign that sets no agendas. (Yes, Alex, I know the Scottish Government keeps publishing policy documents, but they are written by civil servants and are the best thing since Mogadon for putting you to sleep.) You will reply that elections are usually won from the centre.
I know the theory: committed voters will always stick with their party because they have nowhere else to go, so party leaders can afford to shift ground to win over floating voters in the middle. Alex, you are past master at applying this tactic. My query is: does this model apply to an independence referendum? I think not.
The reason is that claiming the centre ground means giving up the very levers of power you want independence to attain. This is not only confusing (rather than comforting) to wavering voters: it makes them ask what you really want independence for? Personal aggrandisement? Meanwhile, the troops who should be out campaigning for independence start to get demoralised. Young voters are particularly de-motivated. To them, if independence is only about keeping the monarchy and the pound, how is it really any different from the boring status quo?
The No campaign is negative because it represents vested interests and the status quo. If you think the UK status quo is wanting – and most Scots do – then you are a potential Yes voter. But people will only sign on the dotted line for independence if they feel they are buying into a vision of something much better. Providing that vision is your challenge, Alex. Take the gloves off.