Alistair Carmichael: Westminster politicians should stay out of IndyRef2

The former Scottish secretary says the next pro-UK campaign must be very different from the last. 

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Be it the Vow, Project Fear or that Gordon Brown speech, the most memorable – and ultimately successful – unionist interventions in the last Scottish independence referendum were invariably made by Westminster politicians. The long campaign ahead of the next poll, whenever it may be, has kicked off in much the same way – with a doomsaying London government slapping down the SNP.  

Theresa May’s uncompromising gambit is a bold strategy - and an apparently finely-calibrated one. But will it work? Not according to Alistair Carmichael. When we meet in his Westminster office the day after Nicola Sturgeon called for a second referendum, the former Scottish secretary and nationalist bête noire says that after the shock of Brexit, it is far too early to predict another referendum result. He has some frank advice for the next pro-UK campaign: turn this fight into battle between London and the SNP and they risk losing badly.

“The biggest danger in all this is that the retired and retiring generals sit in their armchairs and refight the last war,” Carmichael, the Lib Dems’ only MP north of the border, says. “The only thing I’m certain about in terms of the referendum campaign for the pro-UK [a label Carmichael prefers to unionist], the internationalist case, is that it has to be very different from the last one."

He argues that the campaign leadership should "be rooted in Scotland, rather than allowing the nationalists to portray a referendum as a contest between Scotland and London". "We’ll need to find our champions from the Scottish body politic," he says. "Not people like myself who spend half their time in Scotland and half their time here.”

But Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown are both yesterday’s men – and in an age of SNP hegemony, belong to an entirely different political universe. And with Labour routed, Carmichael’s own party much-depleted and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson unable to lead an entire campaign alone, there appears to be few genuinely unifying or useful candidates to fill the vacancy at the head of whatever loose coalition of unionist voices becomes the de facto Better Together 2.0.

Carmichael suggests a figurehead from outside the Holyrood and Westminster bubbles as a solution.  “We need to be prepared to cast the net wider than just politics. That was one of the lessons of the last referendum campaign – that this isn’t an exercise in politics, but a contest of identities," he says. “That’s how identity politics works. Identity politics isn’t susceptible to reasonable and rational argument in the way that ideological politics is”. (This strategy, it has to be said, did not work for M&S boss Stuart Rose and Britain Stronger in Europe).  

May has thus far cast herself as Sturgeon’s main adversary.  It’s arguable that this is unavoidable during IndyRef2’s phoney war – but Carmichael argues that she cannot afford to let this perception stick. That she has already been cast as Vicky Pollard by the one-time unionist stalwart The Daily Record suggests that it could well be too late. With every intervention she has behaved exactly as the SNP, in need of a distant, obstructive Westminster to set themselves against, would want her to.

Carmichael believes a pro-union campaign with Westminster figures like May at the forefront risks turning the nationalists’ losing 2014 strategy into a winning one. “Remember Alex Salmond’s repeated demands to debate David Cameron, as if David Cameron was somehow the leader of the people in Scotland who didn’t want independence,” he says. “He made these demands for a very particular reason - he wanted to show that it was a contest between Scotland and England."

Nor, despite the even bleaker outlook for an independent Scotland, can unionists rely exclusively on their last remaining trump card: the economy. Carmichael believes Brexit was nothing more than a convenient excuse for the SNP, who he says have been spoiling for a second fight “since the morning of September 19th 2014” and campaigned half-heartedly for Remain as a consequence.

The softening of Sturgeon’s rhetoric on full EU membership for an independent Scotland in the days since we spoke appears to have proven him right. Senior nationalists are much franker about the economic risks of independence, the collapse in oil prices, and an inevitable-looking period outside of single market, which may well neutralise the issue.

Similarly, the tarnished legacy of Better Together’s apocalyptic Project Fear campaign could yet come back to haunt unionists. As the journalist David Torrance notes in this week’s New Statesman, the EU referendum has proven that for many “the political conversation is no longer taking place in the realm of balance sheets or, indeed, of objective reality”.

Carmichael agrees. Without an “emotional connection” with the electorate, his side could struggle. “We all bought into the economic argument in 2014. We all understand the importance of economic arguments,” he says. “They’ll be as important in this referendum. The truth of the matter is, though, that a lot of the time they just weren’t cutting through. So the assertion of Scottish identity on both sides of the argument is important. That’s how you get the permission of the electorate to put forward your economic and intellectual arguments.”

But does this crop of Conservatives– many of whom Carmichael sat alongside in cabinet during the coalition years – take Scotland seriously enough?

“No," he says. "Just look at what happened on that fateful September morning. None of them understood the tiger they had caught by the tail.

"David Cameron went out with the ruthless intention to move on to the next issue. And so he went out and spoke directly to Tory/Ukip switchers. And that carried on into the 2015 election, where they played an unashamedly English nationalist card – that message that the electorate couldn’t risk a weak Labour prime minister having their strings pulled by Sturgeon and Salmond. That was that.”

As it stands, the second referendum’s ugly information war is being fought between an English nationalist Tory party and an SNP whose arguments, Carmichael says, are often articles of blind faith. In the absence of a strategy for positively articulating their own Scottish identity, he believes the pro-UK campaigners could be in deep trouble. It remains to be seen whether one will be forthcoming.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.