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18 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

What Better Together learned too late

The nearer we got to polling day, the less the campaign became about statehood and the more it became about policy, from child poverty to social justice, from Gaza to Iraq.

By Adam Tomkins

I suspect that when the history of the Scottish independence referendum campaign is written neither of the official “designated lead organisations” will come out of it shining. Yes Scotland’s relationship with the Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh has been far too close. Their attempts to make the argument for Yes into a cross-party affair failed. In the final weeks of the campaign, Yes Scotland disappeared from the airwaves almost entirely, as SNP minister after minister dominated the TV debates (with Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, more or less the only non-SNP Yesser on prominent display). Away from the official Yes Scotland outfit, it is certainly true that the broader Yes movement has been cross-party, but that has had much more to do with the plethora of unofficial grass-roots groups (Women for Independence, National Collective, Common Weal, Bella Caledonia, etc) than it has had to do with the Yes Scotland leader, Blair Jenkins, and his team on Hope Street.

Only 200 metres away, on another of the main arteries in Glasgow city centre, Sauchiehall Street, are the headquarters of Better Together. They have had to bear a far greater load than their counterparts in Yes Scotland, for two reasons. First, the government backing them was 400 miles away and led by English Tories. And second, the No side of the argument never produced anything close to the range of grass-roots groups that so galvanised, energised and, indeed, mobilised the campaign for independence. Vote No Borders played its part, as did Working for Scotland and George Galloway’s “Just Say Naw” tour, but their contributions were neither designed nor able to match what was happening on the other side.

There are some things Better Together did brilliantly and some others where, as they say, lessons may be learned. Let’s do the opposite of how the campaign was so often perceived, and start with the positives. First, it should never be overlooked just how unusual a beast in British politics was the Better Together campaign. Even in this era of coalition government in London, can there have been co-operation in peacetime between Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats of the kind we have seen here? Of course it has sometimes been rough. There have been disagreements along the way. Yet these have occurred as much within the parties as between them. When it was stormy, the calm authority of Alistair Darling anchored the campaign. He may not be the most florid orator, but he has a steady determination and no little steel and, in private, he shows warmth and remarkable generosity. There are few in the No camp more deserving of our admiration than he, whatever the result.

What Better Together did well was to identify the problems with the independence proposals that were put forward by the SNP. Not that this was always very difficult. The No camp’s campaign was about: “What state do you want to live in?” It won that argument hands down. We want to live in a state that keeps the Queen, that keeps the pound, that keeps the UK’s EU membership (opt-outs and all), that stays in Nato and that retains a social union across the whole of Britain.

But the Yes camp wasn’t too bothered if Better Together won all those arguments, because, it turned out, that was not the terrain on which it wanted to fight. For the Yes camp, particularly in the closing weeks, the campaign question was something else entirely: “What kind of Scotland do you want to build, and why do we need to vote Yes in order to build it?”

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The nearer we got to polling day, the less the campaign became about statehood and the more it became about policy, from child poverty to social justice, from Gaza to Iraq, and from health service “privatisation” to the bedroom tax and welfare reform. The idea of Yes became a rhetorical vessel into which you could pour all your hopes and aspirations, all your fears and frustrations. What do you want? Vote Yes and you can have it. What’s wrong? Vote Yes and it will go away.

Better Together was slow to see that this was the ground that the Yes campaign found so fertile. Only in the last few weeks of the campaign did it finally realise that we had to do more than explain what was wrong with the other side’s proposals, and that we needed to say something ourselves about the better Scotland we wanted to build, and why we needed to vote No in order to build it. 

Adam Tomkins teaches constitutional law at the University of Glasgow and campaigned for a No vote

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