This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
In theory, the ‘No’ campaign in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum ought to trump the SNP. It comprises three parties rather than one, it can draw on the most talented campaigners from a broader pool of politicians and, most pertinently of all, it reflects public opinion. Polls continue to show a majority against independence for Scotland.
In reality, however, the unionist or ‘pro-UK’ campaign is still playing catch-up, with its formal organisation and personnel still under wraps (assuming it exists at all). Meanwhile, the SNP is calmly rolling out the case for a ‘Yes’ vote. It has a recognisable leader (Alex Salmond), a campaign director (Angus Robertson) and, more to the point, lots of money. Scotland’s governing party can also boast an army of activists who have anticipated this moment for years, if not decades.
Fifteen years ago, just months after Tony Blair’s landslide election victory, the situation couldn’t have been more different. Then, three of Scotland’s political parties came together in a hitherto unthinkable political coalition. Their goal was to secure a Yes vote in a devolution referendum, which they achieved after a memorably positive and disciplined campaign. The SNP formed an important part of that trio, but posed no serious threat to Labour on its own.
It says a lot about how much Scottish and UK politics has changed since that the ‘Scotland Forward’ strategy of 1997 is now likely to be the model for another cross-party campaign, only this time two of those pro-devolution parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, will be joining forces with the Conservatives, who led the No campaign 15 years ago.
Now the aim is not to devolve power to Scotland, but to preserve the status quo. Questions abound. How will the campaign be structured? Who will lead it? And can it develop a positive case for the UK? Significantly, on all three fronts the events of the past couple of months have acted as what senior figures call “a catalyst”. While cross-party discussions had taken place before Christmas, as of January they assumed a more urgent air.
With David Cameron’s intervention on 8 January, the phony referendum war that began after last May’s election finally came to an end. Structurally, the unionist parties appreciate the need to avoid the sort of fragmentation that marked the 1979 devolution referendum. Then, there were eight rival ‘Yes’ campaigns, and Helen Liddell famously declared that Labour would not be “soiling” its hands by joining “any umbrella ‘yes’ group”. The SNP need fear no such divisions.
By contrast, in 1997 Scotland Forward united three political parties and several external organisations under a single “yes, yes” message. They successfully generated a sense of unity through joint events and agreed “lines”, but also campaigned under their own banners. That will also be the case with the No campaign, with an umbrella campaign most likely following individual party launches during the Scottish conference season.
Discipline will be essential, not least to mask strategic differences over the constitutional question. Following the prime minister’s Edinburgh speech, all three unionist parties now support the concept of greater devolution, although the details remain sketchy. Initially, they wanted to avoid getting sidetracked into debating more powers or the merits of ‘devo-max’, but that argument – that devolution and independence are separate issues – now looks difficult to sustain.
Not only are the Conservatives coming under sustained pressure to flesh out what they intend to offer Scots if they reject independence, but the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ Home Rule Commission (chaired by Sir Menzies Campbell) is working on its own scheme, while Labour has signalled that so-called ‘devo-plus’ (devolution of all income tax, corporation tax etc) might be its constitutional destination.
For the time being, however, Labour remains the weak link in this grand plan, with divisions in the party over whether or not to share a platform with their ‘auld enemy’, the Conservatives. The attention of Labour and the Tories is also, for obvious reasons, elsewhere at the moment. Senior figures anticipate that once the London mayoral and local government elections of 3 May are out of the way, the focus will shift to the referendum, where it ought to stay until the autumn of 2014.
What of the No campaign’s likely leader? Again, the model is 1997’s Scotland Forward campaign, in which the engaging triumvirate of Alex Salmond, Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace shared the limelight. Although the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling has more or less agreed to play a leading role during the official 16-week campaign in 2014, his involvement prior to that might be limited. The unionist triumvirate is also keen that Alex Salmond is not able to ‘demolish’ any single figure.
Certain advisers are also pushing for Cameron to play a substantial role – which may delight the SNP – but recognises that the PM of the United Kingdom cannot credibly be excluded from the campaign. Whatever his involvement, there will be a major figure associated with each party, most likely Darling for Labour, Annabel Goldie for the Conservatives, and perhaps Charles Kennedy for the Lib Dems, who, usefully, distanced himself from the coalition government some time ago. The Conservatives and Lib Dems recognise that Labour, north and south of the border, will be at the forefront of this campaigning trio, with Paul Sinclair, Johann Lamont’s press officer and a former adviser to Gordon Brown, a key figure behind the scenes, and Anas Sarwar, Lamont’s articulate MP deputy, tipped to assume a high public profile as the No campaign unfolds.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is developing campaign messages that are neither exclusively negative nor focused on highlighting weaknesses in the nationalist position. Another lesson learned from last May’s election is that positive campaigning works, but also allows scope for a degree of underlying negativity. The SNP is a past master at this twin-track approach, blending pejorative barbs about UK institutions with positive mood-music on independence.
Again, the prime minister’s Edinburgh speech demonstrated that the coalition, at least, is getting the hang of this, with its emphasis on Scotland’s place – as part of the UK – at the world’s top tables. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, meanwhile, has already started using some nascent positive messaging, stating that he wants “home rule within the UK family, sharing the risks and rewards in a turbulent world”.
There remain strategic problems with which the No camp will have to grapple. As the SNP tries to maintain a feeling of inevitability about independence, it will go into the campaign proper arguing – assuming the Conservatives still have a poll lead – that Scots face a choice between a UK Tory government with few (or even no) Scottish MPs, and an independent Scotland able to take its own decisions. That said, if a week is a long time in politics, then a lot can happen in two-and-a-half years.