Ayesha Hazarika: Unionists must be wary of resurrecting Project Fear - it's patronising

It should have come as no surprise but it did. We need to get our thick heads round the fact that there are no rules in politics right now. It really is a free-for-all. We are in the political equivalent of fight club. And in a way, it's quite fitting that it we should go full circle and end up right where all this started. The Scottish independence referendum.

How many campaigners on both sides will be willing to turn the other cheek this time round? Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
How many campaigners on both sides will be willing to turn the other cheek this time round? Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

There is a large part of me which just admires Nicola Sturgeon’s chutzpah. I was chairing a panel at the Women of the World festival last week on women and politics and spoke of the importance of having a clear cause and my God, Sturgeon is a woman on a mission. Independence. At any cost. Her party does exactly what it says on the tin. She is an astute, courageous and open politician and that makes her leadership strong, appealing and exciting. Sturgeon was always going to use the British government’s increasingly chaotic Brexit handling as a tactical opportunity to get right in there, ratchet up the pressure and demand a second referendum. She managed to rain on Theresa’s May’s big Article 50 parade and she managed to catch out the British government, the media and the Labour Party (I know… who knew right?). So, we’re all agreed Sturgeon is one canny political operator.

But does her ruthless pursuit of nationalism allow her to act in the national interest? Speaking to friends and family on both sides of the argument, everyone feels uncomfortable and conflicted about the timing. Not surprised it was happening, but quite so soon? Even friends who are big independence supporters felt people and campaigners not in the SNP bubble were still a bit talked out and knackered from all the politics - the 2014 Scottish referendum, the 2015 general election, the 2016 Scottish elections, the EU referendum, plus they are in the middle of important council elections. Someone said to me that the increased level of political debate since the independence referendum had enlivened Scotland in a positive way, but it’s a bit like having too much cake. It’s dead nice at first but you get to the point where you just can’t stomach any more and need a break.

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And we all have our stories about how divisive the last referendum was and how it cleaved family and friend circles apart. And that’s what happens during referendums – they get very heated and can get ugly. And all the folk who are pleading for kumbaya-like debate on their Facebook pages need to get real. Someone tweeted “Guys – can we be respectful. No fighting, spitting, shouting this time - okay?” and someone replied “What about eggin?” which summed it up. There is also the legitimate question about waiting to see how the actual Brexit negotiations turn out. The prospect of a self-defeating hard Brexit, or no deal at all, may well be what tips people over to wanting to go it alone, but most people will want some detail. I know we’re all post-fact these days, but some actual information will be germane to making an informed decision especially after the rather alternative facts put forward by both sides during the EU referendum campaign.

And Sturgeon is not the only one playing hardball. Theresa May will not say no outright, but she will not allow any referendum to happen until after Britain has left the EU. Both women are now locked into high stakes, angry, stand-off which suits them politically. Ironically, both leaders face pressing domestic crises on matters like the health service and education so this constitutional drama may well serve as a useful, cynical distraction.

Theresa May has the upper hand because ultimately it’s her decision whether it happens and when, she hasn’t got that much to lose in Scotland because Labour is still so weak, and she can look like she’s facing Sturgeon down. Also, May doesn’t even pretend with all that “One Nation” business. She is focused on going after Ukip and Labour votes in England. And England may care much less about Scotland leaving this time.

Sturgeon knows that the timing is cheeky, but has banked on stirring the pot early and whipping up anti-Westminster hostility which is a highly powerful driver. They said “Take Back Control” – but not for us. Democracy denied! Again. Why won’t they listen to us? And that sense of grievance is not to be underestimated. As we know from the Brexit vote. And from the 2014 independence. I helped on the Better Together campaign and we felt an exhausted sigh of relief that our economic arguments secured that win. But in many ways it was a pyrrhic victory especially for the Labour Party who paid a heavy price, because we did not keep the conversation going about why the union was a good thing and we didn’t manage to craft a powerful emotional and cultural argument even after we won. The SNP kept those arguments alive and indeed we are about to face them again with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

The unionists (whoever leads that campaign) will need to think carefully about how much project fear they resurrect. They need to be mindful of tone and language. Only banging on about the price of oil and the Barnett formula can sound like the rather patronising equivalent of “you’ve never had it so good” or “you’re all thick” which won’t play out so well and certainly didn’t go so well with the EU referendum campaign.

My gut feeling is that we are in period of politics where the blood is up and nationalism is on the rise but only time will tell and I am a democrat. But Sturgeon’s speech and her ultimate goal may well be bigger – she may want to be the woman who fired the starting gun on the break-up of the United Kingdom, especially as nationalist leaders in Northern Ireland and Wales are already thinking: “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Who knows, perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the Union and perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, Sturgeon will convene the leaders of our Disunited Kingdom - Theresa May, Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill - for a round of golf at Muirhead now they’ve dropped their female ban – which is literally the only good news that’s happened for a while in these somewhat mad times.