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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder