Better Together’s dismal campaign will weaken the UK in the long-run

Unionists might be ahead in the polls, but they are losing the argument.

Alex Salmond’s belief that independence will be achieved on the back of a “rising tide of expectations” is drawn from recent Scottish political history. It’s no coincidence that support for the SNP boomed in the 1970s following the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea then slumped in the 1980s as the UK economy entered a severe downturn. 

The near doubling of Scottish rates of poverty and unemployment during the Thatcher era sapped Scotland’s economic confidence, reinforcing the defensive and conservative instincts of the Scottish electorate. No doubt last week’s news that British output has begun to recover after the worst recession in living memory was greeted with the same sense of relief in Bute House as it was at the Treasury. 

Combined with the continued narrowing of Labour’s Westminster poll lead and an increase in English anti-European sentiment, a period of sustained growth (however modest) could help swing things in Salmond’s favour over the coming 13 months. The launch in November of the SNP’s heavily trailed White Paper on Independence might have a similar effect, particularly if it succeeds in restoring the party’s credibility on a range of key policy issues, not least the currency. 

Some senior nationalists think their prospects have already begun to improve. They are convinced Better Together, the official vehicle of unionism, has made a strategic error in trying to flood the media with - as the first minister puts it - “a diet of unremitting negativity”. There could be some truth to this. Even Downing Street was embarrassed by the MoD’s ludicrous suggestion that London might try to designate Faslane nuclear base sovereign UK territory if Scotland becomes independent.

Better Together’s reliance on casual dishonesty as a campaigning technique represents another potential weakness in its approach. A few months ago, it claimed a leaked Scottish government memo contained an admission from SNP finance secretary John Swinney that monetary union would mean a Westminster veto over Scottish budgets. In reality, the document did little more than acknowledge some form of fiscal agreement would be necessary to anchor any prospective post-UK “sterlingzone”. Shortly after, a Better Together press release alleged, quite baselessly, that abuse aimed at unionist politicians by pro-independence activists had been co-ordinated by the SNP leadership. 

As well as lowering the tone of debate, incidents such as these highlight a serious and far-reaching problem for supporters of the Union: even if a steady flow of misinformation and innuendo is enough to win the immediate referendum battle, it is insufficient as a long-term response to the challenge of nationalism. Unionism’s struggle to articulate a compelling, progressive case for Scotland’s on-going membership of the UK lends credence to SNP claims that no such case exists. 

British political leaders do not seem overly concerned with the absence of positive arguments in favour of the current constitutional set-up. They should be. Much rests on the nature of the referendum result. Assuming Better Together prevails (still the most likely outcome at this stage, despite the SNP‘s renewed optimism), failure to secure more than 40 per cent of the vote would be hugely demoralising for the independence movement, while a 40 to 45 per cent vote share could be passed off as a respectable defeat. Anything above 45 per cent, on the other hand, would ensure Scotland’s future constitutional development remained under nationalist control.

With the backing of almost half Scotland’s voters, unionists would no longer be able to dismiss independence as the obsession of a bullying minority at odds with mainstream Scottish opinion. Moreover, the 2016 Holyrood elections would become a bidding war between the SNP and the unionist parties over enhanced powers, something the unionist parties couldn’t possibly hope to win. Any subsequent increase in the competence of the Scottish Parliament would be met with growing calls from the Tory right to restrict the ability of Scottish MPs to vote on English-only matters.

All this underlines the need for Better Together to do more than simply point out the contradictions and inadequacies in the SNP’s independence proposals. Unionism’s intellectual credibility depends on a clear explanation of how Scotland’s social and economic life will benefit from London government over the next 10 or 15 years. Currently, unionists are ahead in the polls but losing the argument. Stemming the tide in 2014 is one thing; holding it back indefinitely is quite another.

Alex Salmond at the launch of the pro-independence campaign last year. Photo: Getty

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle