Why Michael Moore's sacking as Scottish Secretary will weaken the No campaign

The Lib Dem was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with.

There’s nothing Alex Salmond loves more than a rammy with the Secretary of State for Scotland. Since he first became SNP leader in 1990, he’s seen a dozen of them come and go – and he has battled hard, over everything from devolution and Megrahi to additional powers and independence, against each one. So the news this morning that the understated Michael Moore has been replaced as Scottish Secretary, after three years in the job, by the combative Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael will have delighted the First Minister.

Moore was sacked because the Cabinet had grown anxious about his conciliatory approach to the independence referendum. In contrast to the belligerent tone adopted by most senior figures in the No campaign (see Phillip Hammond’s interview in the Daily Mail today), Moore made an effort to deal with the SNP on equal terms. It was a surprisingly effective strategy which helped undermine the nationalists’ view of Westminster as brittle, distant and uncompromising.

Moore also seemed to respect Scottish institutions – one reason, no doubt, the "Edinburgh Agreement" negotiations over the timing, format and legal basis of the referendum went relatively smoothly. Carmichael, on the other hand, comes from an entirely different school of unionism. In 2007, as the Liberal Democrats’ Scotland spokesman, he called for the Scottish Office to be abolished and absorbed into a new "Department for Nations and Regions". This sort of rhetoric only ever plays into SNP hands.

So what is the point of Carmichael’s appointment? By furiously exaggerating the potential economic pitfalls of independence, Better Together is already running the most relentlessly aggressive campaign it can. Granted, Moore was trounced by Nicola Sturgeon in a recent television debate, but there’s limit to how much staged media events influence public opinion.

Moore’s sacking is a classic Westminster misreading of the Scottish situation. London is obsessed with the idea that a big hitter” is needed to "take on" Salmond. Yet quite apart from the fact that Carmichael is hardly a "big hitter", the First Minister relishes (and has a habit of winning) confrontations that allow him to pit plucky, populist Holyrood against the big, clunking fist of Whitehall. Moore was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with. For no good reason at all, the no campaign has just dumped one of its strongest cards.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore waits to be interviewed by a local television crew in Galashiels, Scotland earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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