Henry McLeish: Positive case for saying No

Campaigners go door-to-door with their message. Picture: Getty
Campaigners go door-to-door with their message. Picture: Getty
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To defeat independence, the Better Together campaign should be spearheaded by Scottish Labour, with a message branded ‘made in Scotland’, writes Henry McLeish

The clock is running down to our highly anticipated referendum, but despite some recent stirrings from the No campaign, there is still no sense of urgency about making a positive and modern case for the Union, no sense of grasping the seriousness of the Yes campaign and the impact it is making, and no sense of the public disillusionment with Westminster politics and the rise of right-wing populism, which is alien to Scots. A perfect storm of issues and thoughtlessness is brewing which may make Scots intent on voting No reconsider whether they should vote Yes.

Despite this, Labour still has a unique opportunity to embrace change, transform the debate on Scotland’s future within the Union, and serve up a more positive vision. This window of opportunity has to be seized now. The No campaign must learn lessons from the Scottish Government’s white paper.

First, a consensus has to be built around a positive case for Scotland’s role within a modern and transformed Union: there was a consensus in 1997 when Scotland voted for a parliament, but today the nation is divided, with both campaigns making this worse. We need a cohesive, nation-building campaign.

Second, the unionist parties must campaign for a new written constitution for the UK which at its core abandons the idea of the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster parliament: this has become redundant as a consequence of the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Union and devolution. In the early days of his premiership, Gordon Brown talked about building the trust of the British people in our democracy and argued for “a shared national consensus for a programme of constitutional reform”. This chimes with today’s reality, where we need to peer into the future, look closely at the current constitutional set-up and, within that, the needs of Scotland. Without this wider perspective of reform, the case for the Union is weakened and the prospect of further political instability is increased. This is the point of engagement for the unionist parties at Westminster, especially Labour, which has much to gain from a solution that satisfies the settled will of the Scottish people and makes long-term sense for the Union. The longer Scotland is out there on its own, the greater the danger that it will eventually have no other option than separation. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

Third, Labour, in particular, has to spell out what a No vote will mean to electors. In the absence of a second question, electors will not be content with a vague and open-ended commitment.

Fourth, before and after 18 September, Labour needs to articulate an alternative to independence and be serious about our commitment to building up our parliament in the context of a different Union, which is modern, looser, flexible, federal and recognises the wish of Scots for the best of all worlds, stopping well short of independence. This has to happen now with conviction and enthusiasm. It makes no sense to wait until 2015.

Fifth, above all else, there has to be a credible, not grudging, embrace of new and radical powers for the Scottish Parliament and a new relationship with the Union.

We need a vision of Scotland that is positive, radical and transformational and at the same time we need to tell Scots, disillusioned by austerity and alien Tory policies at Westminster, that the Union has a story to tell. The mere fact that the Union has existed for 306 years is no guarantee of its continued relevance or popularity. The world is changing and so are the generations. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said recently that the No campaign didn’t need an equivalent document to the government’s white paper. Alistair, it does. Scots need to know what a No vote would mean for them in terms of what is on offer from the Union, the parties involved and the Westminster government. In the absence of a clear direction for Scotland’s future, many Scots may be forced to vote Yes.

The campaign for a “better tomorrow” for Scotland and the Union should reflect a “made in Scotland” brand: the prominence of London, the involvement of the Tories, and the limited contribution of Scottish Labour is simply the wrong strategy; it merely reinforces the Scottishness of the SNP and highlights the weaknesses of Westminster.

There is an overwhelming need for the No campaign to be more positive, more in tune with the aspirations of a modern country and more Scottish, and to spell out what a positive vision for the Union looks like. For Labour there should be no difficulty in promoting the idea of being a proud and passionate Scot and a practical unionist. Saying No can never be a policy, a strategy or a vision, and there is always the danger that a series of rebuttals starts to sound like the threat of revenge if you vote for independence. Voters will also want to know what enhanced devolution will look like, but will have to be reassured, in the run-up to 18 September, that the unionist parties – especially Labour – will deliver: this will not be achieved easily in a multi-nation, multi-government and multi-party set-up. Labour must reinforce the point that much of what the SNP offers can be achieved stopping well short of independence. But we cannot afford to wait until the spring of 2014, or even worse until after the referendum result, to outline the change we want to see. Public opinion is potentially on our side.

Independence is being sold on the back of retaining the currency, monarchy, social connections, economic ties and cultural union with the UK. Why wouldn’t Scots opt for a way forward that retains all the benefits, strengthens Scotland’s role within the Union and still achieves radical change for Scotland and the Union, without the need to be independent? But for this to happen, Westminster and the Union have to shake themselves from their complacent and confused 19th-century thinking.

Although largely unnoticed, the impact of the corrosive and toxic policies of the Tories at Westminster is widening the political divide between Scotland and the Union and making the era of Thatcherism look benign in comparison. Scots are now anxious about what lies ahead in 2015. Labour in Scotland should side-step the Tories: they bring nothing to the constitutional table.

The referendum campaign has to be undertaken with an eye to the future, of what happens in 2015 and 2016 in the elections to Westminster and Holyrood. What happens in the next ten months will have huge consequences for Scotland and the fortunes of the Labour Party. So it is time to learn lessons from the white paper launch, and reconfigure, reframe and sharpen the message.

Ultimately, this campaign will be about the big questions. What kind of Scotland do we want to live in? What constitutional set-up can deliver this? When independence is defeated, what will Scotland’s role in the Union be? How will the Union be radically transformed to deal with a very different future? Scotland is on a journey and Labour should now more enthusiastically and urgently shape the destination.

Scottish Labour should lead a “Better Tomorrow” campaign made in Scotland and free from the “Made in London” label. This could be done with progressive Lib Dems who are disillusioned with Nick Clegg and fellow neo-Liberals. Labour’s Scottish leader should lead the campaign. The SNP has to be confronted by Labour in Scotland, not from Westminster

All of this would reinforce the message that voting No has a deeper and more positive purpose.

Labour has to build a pre- and post-referendum consensus of the future of our country. This was achieved in 1997, to great effect, and could be done again. The campaign is about the future of Scotland and not about the future of the SNP.

Over the next nine months, Labour can shape the future of both Scottish and UK politics. At stake is the prospect of success in the autumn of 2014, Westminster in 2015 and Holyrood in 2016. By embracing progressive, left-of-centre thinking, a social democratic platform (reaffirming in the public mind that social justice, equality and solidarity are Labour ideals), social and political ideas from the Nordic model, promoting a new written constitution for the Union, embracing a distinctive Scottish identity and reaffirming our philosophical roots, Labour could win back electoral support and see the party leading from the front.

• Henry McLeish was First Minister of Scotland from 2000 to 2001