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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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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