With Scotland’s vote on independence one year away, Blair McDougall finds the nationalist strategy stalled
Next September Scotland will be asked to make a choice. Do we want to remain a strong part of the United Kingdom, or do we want to make a leap into the unknown and go it alone? It is a choice that the people of Scotland will make, but it is a decision that could have a profound impact on everyone who lives on these islands.
Most readers of this article will likely be inside the UK but outside of Scotland and so may not have been following Scotland’s debate as closely as those of us living it every day. So, with a year to go, where do things stand in the independence debate?
The first thing to understand about the referendum is that it is taking place in spite of the level of support for independence, rather than because of it. Alex Salmond has worked hard since he became first minister to try and tell the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland that we here in Scotland are somehow desperate to break away from them. In telling this particular story he is being dishonest. For generations, support for independence has been a minority view. The overwhelming majority of people are entirely comfortable with being a Scot within the UK. Salmond and his party strategists know this. That is exactly why he absolutely refused to talk about the constitution during the last election. He knew that to push independence front and centre in the campaign would have lost, not won, votes.
Indeed, 55 per cent of people who said that they voted for the Scottish National party in 2011 have said that they are in favour of independence. Indeed, since Salmond started his campaign to break up the UK, support for independence has dropped in almost every published opinion poll (apart from one poll that the SNP commissioned and which has since been largely discredited). Recent polls show that support for independence currently stands at just one in four.
But Salmond pushes on undeterred. He is a politician who builds his success by creating an unstoppable sense of momentum. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, his narrative of recent Scottish history is that independence is inevitable, that devolution is a staging post on a journey to the inescapable dissolution of the union.
Therein lies his difficulty today. His belief in leaving the UK is based on faith rather than facts. Like all nationalists he starts with a conviction that Scotland should, and will, be a separate state. The evidence follows afterwards. He describes those leading the opposition to his project as a traitorous ‘parcel of rogues’ whose job is to talk down Scotland. In his mind, when these ‘anti-Scottish’ forces are defeated, national pride and patriotism will awaken and Scots will achieve their true destiny. It is an utterly dishonest and objectionable prospectus. To suggest that people who do not share his faith-based world view are somehow less Scottish than those that do is an insult to the majority of people in Scotland – the very same people that he has to convince to vote for him if he is to have any chance of success.
Most Scots do not feel any less proudly Scottish just because we are part of a union with the other nations within the UK. The great Scottish achievements and triumphs – from the age of enlightenment to our modern innovations – have occurred as part of the UK. They may not have happened because of the union but being part of the UK certainly has not prevented us from being a distinctive and successful nation. In fact, from the preservation of our own religious and legal institutions, to the powerful and successful devolved parliament in place since 1999, Scottishness has always coexisted as part of something bigger.
The nationalists’ strategy is trapped between a need to excite the electorate about the change they claim could occur with independence and a fear that a radical offer will only further alienate a sceptical electorate. The result is an independence offer best described as ‘everything will change but nothing will change.’ Ironically, this attempt to ‘de-risk’ independence has only further alienated voters. Sometimes described as ‘indy-lite’, rebranding a product Scots neither want nor need has left a once-passionate and well-defined cause seeming inauthentic and bloodless.
Take the issue of what currency an independent Scotland would use. A couple of years ago Salmond argued that the pound was bad for Scotland and that early entry into the euro was essential. After the eurozone crisis the SNP switched to a policy of creating a sterlingzone after independence underpinned by a fiscal pact between an independent Scottish government and the government of the remainder of the UK.
Honest nationalists have raised questions over whether such a fiscal pact would make a ‘free’ Scotland truly free, as Edinburgh’s spending and taxes would have to be sent for sign-off in London. And this policy is not something that the SNP could promise: a currency union, by definition, would be something the rest of the UK would have to sign up to. With Scotland having just walked away, would the rest of the UK agree to enter into a currency union with a new foreign state? It is a big risk, yet the SNP refuses to say which currency Scotland would use if a deal to share the UK pound could not be done.
There is vague talk from Salmond of using the pound informally – which would leave Scotland without a lender of last resort. The result of the nationalist effort to pretend that leaving the UK comes without any cost or risk has, paradoxically, meant that the electorate in Scotland has actually been left with greater sense of risk. If on this issue, as with so many others, the Yes camp sets out a radical change, along with the risks and potential rewards, voters could make a judgement and some might even decide the gamble was worth it. Its dishonest strategy has only increased the level of doubt.
As a group of people who believe unquestioningly in the need for an independent Scotland, the nationalists now struggle to articulate why it is that we need independence. Their starting point has been an ill-defined promise of a more socially democratic nation. It is a familiar tune from them: We will be all the things that Labour used to be. Of course, while Labour was introducing the welfare state, the NHS and the minimum wage, the SNP was, as ever, arguing that what really mattered was independence.
Leaving aside its record in government, where it has been sacking nurses and cutting college places, the idea that the SNP are socialists seeking to build a Nordic model north of the border lacks basic credibility. Oil companies have been offered a cast-iron guarantee that taxes in the North Sea will not rise while multinational companies have been promised a Reaganomics race-to-the-bottom corporation tax cut of three per cent below the rate of the rest of the UK – regardless of what rate the rest of the UK has.
In contrast to the effort expended to reassure international business, on issues that matter to Scots, like pensions and welfare, the nationalists have failed to make basic preparations. When Scotland’s chartered accountants pointed out that cross-border pensions schemes are required to be fully funded under European Union rules it caught Scottish ministers completely by surprise, despite the fact that the creation of a new border would create a £200bn cost for UK pension schemes. When, at the start of this year, after five years in office, Scottish ministers gave a panel of experts less than six months to write a plan for establishing a new welfare state the experts concluded that separation presented ‘serious risks to the continuity of payments’. Remember, this is not an insurgent political movement: It has had the full power of the Scottish civil service at its disposal for six years now.
When you consider that the nationalists have been waiting 80 years for this moment, their failure to articulate a compelling, credible vision for independence is remarkable. However, those of us who want to maintain the unity of the UK cannot be complacent. The nationalists are well funded, disciplined and will devote every waking hour of the next year to their cause.
But we also cannot be complacent because the cause we are campaigning for is so important. In practical terms, sharing risks, rewards and resources with the rest of UK is a better future for Scots. We have the best of both worlds today with a distinctive Scottish voice in our parliament alongside the back-up of the bigger UK economy. But we should not lose sight of the principle at stake here. This is also a battle of ideas between division and unity. We are proud to argue that the people of this small island have far more that unites us than divides us.
Blair McDougall is campaign director of the Better Together campaign
Correction: The first sentence of the fourth paragraph originally read: Indeed, 55 per cent of people who said that they voted for the Scottish National party in 2011 have said that they are not in favour of independence.