Alex Salmond during his debate with Alistair Darling on Scottish independence on 5 August, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why is everything going wrong for the Scottish Yes campaign?

The SNP is paying the price for its botched currency logic.

With little over a month to go until the referendum, the No campaign is buoyant. Alex Salmond’s unexpectedly weak performance against Alistair Darling in the first televised debate has convinced unionists they are winning the argument as well as the vote. The polls are consolidating in favour of the Union. The currency issue is eating away at the SNP’s economic credibility. The Yes activists I speak to are uncharacteristically downbeat as they begin to accept, some of them for the first time in 24 months, that they might actually lose.

Amidst the gloom, nationalists are telling themselves comforting stories. One is that polling companies haven’t picked-up what’s happening "on the ground"; that the network of Yes groups in poor neighbourhoods will deliver a burst of working class enthusiasm strong enough to propel independence over the line on referendum day. Another is that the SNP has been in this situation before three years ago, as the last Holyrood election approached and will turn things around now as it did then.

We won’t find out how credible the first story is until the vote itself, but the second one just doesn’t stack-up. "The difference between 2011 and 2014", one senior Better Together figure told me recently, "is that in 2011 [Scottish Labour] knew the fundamentals, like leadership and the economy, weren’t on its side. This time we know they are." This is surely right. At the end of June, 49 per cent of Scots said independence would make them worse off, compared to just 27 per cent who said it would make them better off. It would be difficult for any party to win an election battling against these sorts of numbers, let alone a referendum on something as far-reaching as national sovereignty.

So where did it all go wrong for the Yes campaign, which only a few weeks ago was fizzing with confidence? The left claims Yes Scotland and the SNP have spent too much time trying to persuade voters that independence will be achieved seamlessly, with little or no disruption to Scotland’s economy or its institutions, when it should have been emphasising Scotland’s bleak prospects as part of an austerity-bound UK. Had the SNP made September 18 a referendum on the current state of Britain, rather than the future state of Scotland, Yes support would be higher than it is now, they argue.

It’s a legitimate point. The weakest feature of the SNP’s independence prospectus – its plan for a post-UK sterlingzone – is also the centrepiece of the party’s "continuity strategy" – the various triangulating gestures the SNP leadership has made over recent years to reassure undecided voters that radical constitutional change needn’t entail radical political change. But the public knows, intuitively, that this isn’t true. You can’t sell a grand political vision like self-determination with a series of (supposedly) pragmatic compromises. Why bother with all the upheavaland, for some, the trauma – of creating a new state if it’s going to look just like the old one?

For me, the flawed logic behind the SNP’s currency policy became clear last November, at the launch of the White Paper in Glasgow. When asked why a new Anglo-Scottish monetary union would work better than the tanking eurozone, the first minster explained (correctly) that Scottish and English productivity rates are much more closely aligned than those of Germany and Greece. But for 40 years nationalists have argued that Westminster has limited Scotland’s economic potential and that independence will improve Scotland’s economic performance. Monetary union, anchored by a restrictive "fiscal stability pact", would lock the Scottish and English economies together, leaving Scotland’s economic autonomy severely curtailed. So, again, people are left asking: what, exactly, is the point?

But there are signs the tone of the SNP’s campaign is shifting. In the last few days the party has issued a stream of press releases warning of the "threat" a No vote poses to the NHS in Scotland. "While the SNP has protected Scotland’s NHS in government, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the NHS in England will be run by private companies by 2020", one of them reads. "Every £10 cut from NHS England through austerity, privatisation, or patient charges reduces our budget by £1 … [Labour has] to come clean on the huge impact that NHS privatisation in England will have on Scotland." At the same time, Nicola Sturgeon has been making high-profile visits to foodbanks and loudly attacking the coalition’s disability benefit reforms. Expect to see much more of the deputy first minister, the nationalists’ single greatest campaigning asset, in the five weeks that remain before 18 September.

However, if, as looks likely, the unionist lead holds, what would the impact of a No vote on the SNP and the broader Yes campaign be? The Better Together fantasy is that an exhausted Salmond resigns, while nationalism, lacking any clear or unifying purpose, collapses in on itself. This scenario isn’t totally implausible, but Salmond is only going to walk if it becomes politically impossible for him not to. Anything above 40 per cent of the vote will count as a respectable defeat for the SNP; anything above 45 per cent will count as a moral victory. And unionists should be careful not to underestimate the organisational resilience of the Yes groups, such as Radical Independence and National Collective, which have emerged since 2012. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the referendum debate has brought the Scottish left out of its ghetto. It won’t be going back again after 19 September. Nonetheless, in the short-term, a No vote would be profoundly demoralising for Yes activists. They have a lot of work to do, and very little time to do it in, if they are going to avoid the grinding sense of disappointment that comes with political failure.

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

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.