Get ready for another 12 months of disappointment, Scotland

This time next year we’ll know which campaign Scots disliked the least.

With a year to go until the referendum, it’s safe to say most Scots remain disengaged from the debate about their constitutional future. And who could blame them? Neither the nationalists nor the unionists have produced a campaign capable of capturing the public’s attention.

The SNP, given the opportunity to permanently alter the terms and conditions of Scottish politics, has chosen instead to try and triangulate its way to victory. Its manoeuvres on NATO, the currency, the monarchy, the regulation of financial services and corporation tax reveal a party (or rather a party leadership) lacking in ideological ambition. How much of the UK’s dysfunctional political model do Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon want to impose on an independent Scotland?

When it launched last summer, Yes Scotland had the chance to build a grassroots movement based on the idea that far-reaching constitutional change was a necessary first step towards far-reaching social change. So far, however, it has simply followed the SNP’s lead. At its most radical, Yes Scotland sells independence as a way of mitigating the worst effects of the Westminster consensus, not of actually breaking with it.

The task of building an alternative vision of independence has fallen to smaller, left-leaning organisations such as the Jimmy Reid Foundation – with its hugely successful Common Weal initiative – the Radical Independence Convention and National Collective. Without these groups, the Yes campaign would lack vitality. Their contributions will be pivotal over the coming months.

Better Together, meanwhile, has done exactly what it set out to do - and with great efficiency. Furiously exaggerating the economic pitfalls of independence, undermining trust in the Scottish government, flooding the debate with distracting and trivial arguments – the No camp has adopted a scorched earth approach to the referendum, laying waste to everything in its path, including its own intellectual credibility.

Three scare stories in particular stand out. The first is the late Lord Carmyllie’s suggestion, back in March 2012, that England would be forced to bomb the airports of an independent Scotland if it ever came under attack. The second is the claim that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be guaranteed a triple-A credit rating – something Britain itself was stripped of in January. And the third (a hands-down winner) is the MoD’s warning that Faslane nuclear base might remain “sovereign UK territory” after independence.  

During the early stages of the campaign, the relentless questioning of the SNP by Alistair Darling and others worked to expose the weakness of the nationalists’ case. Now it serves only to remind people of how empty the unionist one is. Better Together’s rampant, unsophisticated unionism needs to be balanced by a compelling account of how Scotland will benefit, socially and economically, from continued membership of the UK. It remains to be seen whether any such account exists.

The polls have been pretty consistent. According to the latest survey, the Yes campaign is trailing by 17 points and support for independence is struggling to edge above the 35 per cent mark. However, nationalists can take comfort from the fact that a large number of voters – as much as 45 per cent of the electorate, in fact – remain undecided. What’s more, the desire for a more powerful Scottish Parliament could translate into support for secession if the unionists fail to produce a coherent blueprint for the next phase of devolution.

We should, at any rate, expect the polls to narrow as the referendum approaches. The SNP is a formidable, well-resourced campaigning machine, while the energy and enthusiasm of the activists on the Yes side far outstrips that of their unionist counterparts. Moreover, it has happened before. Contrary to Nate Silver’s recent assertion, it was the Canadian federalists, not the Quebecois separatists, who squandered a double-digit advantage during the closing weeks of the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s independence from Canada. It’s not hard to imagine a similar scenario emerging in Scotland next year.

On the other hand, things could go badly wrong for the SNP if its White Paper, due out in November, doesn’t live up to the hype. Salmond has said he wants it to “resonate down through the ages”, so the pressure is on. Better Together is gearing up for a massive assault on the document, which it hopes will fatally undermine the nationalist campaign as it heads into 2014. The media’s response will be important. If journalists feel the White Paper has succeeded in answering some of the more problematic questions surrounding independence, people will think it has passed the test. If not, the SNP will find it difficult to recover.

The last 12 months have not been very edifying. The SNP and Yes Scotland have pursued their continuity narrative promising that a future independent Scotland will replicate the current unionist one in almost every way. Better Together and the pro-UK parties have pursued their wrecking ball strategy aimed at demolishing the idea that independence will be seamless and pain free. This time next year we’ll know which of the two campaigns Scots disliked the least.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a visit to the North Edinburgh Childcare Centre to mark one year to go until the Scottish independence referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Labour must learn the secrets of the Scottish Conservatives

 A Faustian pact with the SNP is not the short cut back to power some in Labour think it is. 

If Labour wants to recover as a political force, in Scotland or nationally, it must do the hard work of selling voters on a British, progressive party. But some in both the SNP and Labour sense a shortcut - a "progressive alliance"

Progressives might be naturally cautious about taking advice from a Conservative, but anybody covering Scottish politics for a Tory website is very familiar with life in the doldrums. And there are a few things to be learnt down there. 

First, as Scottish Labour members will tell anyone who listens, the SNP talk an excellent progressive game, particularly on any area where they’re in opposition. But in government the Nationalists have simply navigated by two stars - differentiating Scotland from England to the greatest extent possible, and irritating as few people as possible, all in order to engineer support for independence.

Independence itself would, according to nearly all objective assessments, involve a sharp adjustment in Scottish public expenditure, and painful consequences for those who depend on it. Yet this does little to dent the SNP’s enthusiasm. All their political reasoning is worked out backwards from that overriding goal.

There is no reason to believe that the nationalists' priorities at Westminster would be any different. Joining the SNP in "progressive alliance" would be a poison pill for Labour. 

For the larger party would be in a double bind. Govern cautiously, respecting the relative weakness of the left in England and Wales, and the SNP will paint its coalition partner as "Red Tory", taking credit for whatever was popular in Scotland and disowning the rest. 

But drive through a more radical programme with SNP votes (presumably after dismantling "English Votes for English Laws"), and risk permanently alienating huge sections of the electorate south of the border. Those Miliband-in-Salmond’s-pocket pictures would be just the start.

Scottish Labour is familiar with the reality of the SNP in power. But that's not to say it isn't making its own mistakes. Too often, it tries to strike the same sort of bargain with small-n nationalism.

Constitutionally-focused politics isn’t kind to social democrats, as Irish Labour will tell you. So it’s clear why Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale would wish to believe that there is a split-the-difference constitutional position which would, as this article has it, offer “an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics”.

But incantations about "federalism" and "home rule" aren’t going to save Labour. They’re an attempt to appeal to everybody, and are neither intellectually nor politically adequate to the challenge facing the party.

Holyrood is already one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on earth, so "federalism" is at this point mostly a question of how England is run. If “more powers” were actually going to stop nationalism, we’d have seen some evidence of it during the last 20 years.

And as political tactics go, it won’t woo back voters whom the SNP have persuaded that independence is a progressive cause, but it will alienate voters who care about the union.

Here, Scottish Labour should learn from the Conservatives. The leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, realised that voters were always going to have better non-Conservative options on the ballot paper than the Tories, so there was no way back that didn’t involve selling voters on Conservatism. A new Conservatism in important respects, but nonetheless a British, centre-right party.

Labour too must recognise that they are never going to be a more appealing option than the SNP to voters who believe separatism is a good idea. Instead, they must sell voters on what they are: a British, centre-left party. The progressive case for Britain, and against independence, is there to be made.

Labour needs to sell the United Kingdom, and the Britishness underlying it, as a progressive force. As long as left-wing voters remain attached to independence and the SNP, despite all the implications, Labour will be marginalised and the union in danger. 

Henry Hill is assistant editor of ConservativeHome, and has written their Red, White, and Blue column on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since 2013. Follow him @HCH_Hill.