SCOTTISH Labour is planning to mount a broad-based “Save Devolution” campaign to counter the independence movement, in a bid to ensure it does not box itself in as “Unionist” against the SNP.
Party figures are also keen to prevent their anti-independence campaign being reduced to an “Alex Salmond vs AN Other” match-up, believing a personalised fight between the First Minister and a pro-Union figure would play into the hands of their opponents.
Despite speculation in Westminster yesterday that former chancellor Alistair Darling would be persuaded to lead the campaign across Scotland, Johann Lamont, the party’s new Scottish leader, is understood to have made it clear she will head up Labour efforts ahead of the expected 2014 referendum.
But Ms Lamont is expected to back a “collegiate” approach, and has pinpointed the Constitutional Convention, the body that formed the ground rules for the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s, as a template for the pro-Union campaign.
Other pro-Union sources said they did not expect there to be a single campaign, offering an umbrella for all to campaign under, because the different parties involved would want to emphasise their own priorities.
The lack of clarity was reflected among civic and business leaders who support the Union who also say they do not expect to launch a campaign in the near future, saying most would wait until a referendum was imminent.
Labour’s plan to make a broad “pro-devolution” appeal to Scotland was already coming under pressure yesterday, with key civic leaders demanding the option of “devo max” be included in the referendum – something which Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories all oppose.
Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, warned that the debate should allow for more powers to be considered, a call which has met with support from the SNP.
It gives Ms Lamont and other “pro-devolutionists” a major headache as they seek to remain supportive of a more powerful devolved settlement, while keeping it off any ballot paper.
The attempt to steer away from a campaign “head” also came as some Labour MPs warned they did not believe they had a heavyweight presence at Holyrood to do the job anyway.
One said: “I would get Gordon Brown to do it. He is still the biggest beast around.”
The aim behind a campaign based on “saving devolution” would be to ensure the SNP had to fight solely for independence, while ensuring that Labour was not categorised as “Unionist”.
It also comes after SNP strategists signalled they hoped to lump their three main rivals together as “anti-independence parties” in the hope of showing they were negative about Scotland’s future.
A senior Labour source said: “There is no real appetite for a campaign on the Union in the traditional sense. We want a campaign much more broad based around voluntary organisations, civic Scotland and the political parties – like the Constitutional Convention.”
The source added: “The SNP would like it to be a campaign in which you have Alex Salmond versus somebody else. We don’t want that. So it isn’t about Alex Salmond versus AN Other.”
Ms Lamont’s plans emerged as party figures attempted to play down suggestions Mr Darling would be nominated as a clear figurehead for the poll, at the urging of MPs at Westminster.
It came after the former chancellor used a radio interview yesterday to confirm he wanted to play a role in the forthcoming campaign – although not as its leader. He also argued that Labour politicians had to stand alongside Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to get the message across.
He added: “Get the process sorted out, let us get on to the merits of the argument because the sooner we treat people in Scotland like the grown-ups we are and we have a proper discussion about that the better it will be.”
Senior Conservatives last night also said that the pro-Union camp needed to build support from across Scotland.
Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said: “We need not so much an all-party campaign, as a non-party campaign that includes business people, trade unions and other groups. It has to be an across-the-board campaign, with people from all walks of Scottish life.”
He also compared Mr Salmond’s task to Tony Blair’s efforts to back the euro.
“Alex Salmond is very smart, but people shouldn’t be mesmerised by him. It was thought that Tony Blair walked on water after the 1997 general election. But he was unable to persuade people to vote for the European single currency,” he said.
However, with the likely date of the referendum still nearly three years away, business sources said last night they did not expect major support from the private sector until nearer the referendum itself.
One said: “A number of business people are likely to break cover with the views on a referendum and how they are opposed to it, but they are going to take their time. It might end up being individual business leaders who have a campaign nearer the time of the referendum, but not this far out.”