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.

Photo: Getty
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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia