What’s the state of play with the #indyref? Today a guest roundup from Alasdair Stirling, who describes himself as cynical of politicians and believes that we should reject all authority which we cannot justify by reason, but believes that politics that delivers the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers can be virtuous.
With the launch of both the Yes and No campaigns we can now see an outline of the basic strategies with which the opposing sides of the debate will likely fight the referendum. For their part the No campaign seem to have adopted a Salmond/SNP focused variation of their tried and tested ‘Too Wee, Too Poor and Too Stupid’ strategy. Basically they are attacking Salmond (questioning his judgement, courage, associations and commitment to independence itself) and rubbishing any SNP plan or proposal for post-independence Scotland as wishful thinking and/or fanciful nonsense (because ipso facto Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid).
That the gods have blessed the No campaign with fortuitous timing is beyond question. The Jubilee and Olympics have provided a drum beat of ‘feel-good’ news pushing the United Kingdom and its most fundamental institution into every living room. Moreover, launching against a background of increasingly horrific ‘euro-catastrophe’ speculation cannot but have helped prepare a favourable reception for the ‘Better Together’ message. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the recent opinion poll swing against independence is solely due to the No campaign’s good fortune or a compliant media.
The No campaign has scored some very serious hits and deserves credit therefor. Whatever their merits, the SNP’s plans for an independent Scotland’s currency and financial regulation seem to lack detail and coherence, but more importantly the plans as set forth clearly rely on the rUK government agreeing to participate in the proposed arrangements. The No campaigners have therefore found it all too easy to assert that the rUK government will have no truck with the SNP’s plans, or if they do it will be on such terms as will render independence meaningless. The Yes campaign has not yet constructed a viable narrative against this assertion and, frankly, in the public mind the Nationalist plans and proposals stand guilty as charged: i.e. wishful thinking and fanciful nonsense.
Notwithstanding its initial success, the plain fact is that the No campaign has some serious vulnerabilities. It has chosen to focus on a definitive in/out of the Union decision with any plan or proposals for further or enhanced devolution reserved to the post referendum world. Objectively, this is a viable strategy, however the 1979 referendum has left a long folk memory of Westminster gerrymandering and broken promises. Despite the Prime Minister being open to further devolution and/or Labour and Liberal Democrat cogitations on further powers, the Westminster political establishment is very firmly rooted in the constitutional status quo, and No campaigners remain vulnerable to the charge that (absent a political threat from the SNP) Scotland will have no further constitutional change of any substance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, recent opinion polls have the Scottish Labour cognisanti licking their lips at the prospect of Salmond’s political demise and looking forward to a ‘post-SNP’ world with Labour’s political ascendancy re-established, the Tories returned to their rightful place as Scotland’s permanent minority opposition and the SNP “restored to what they ought to be, an eccentric fringe Party: somewhat less serious than the Greens but still a bit more coherent than the Liberal Democrats”. At the other end of the extreme, columnists such as Alan Cochrane and Iain Martin have already speculated on ‘Devo-Minus’ – perhaps half in fun half in earnest, but probably characteristic of a large slice of fundamentalist Unionist thinking.
These sorts of politically partisan objectives are becoming an increasingly vocal fringe to the No campaign, but seem to run counter to the core message of the very opinion polls that give their proponents such hope. Reading opinion poll runes is a notoriously uncertain science, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these vocal fringes are driving the No campaign to ignore the only indications of the electorate’s preferences simply because an in/out option best serves their partisan ends. It remains to be seen whether the Scottish voters share Labour’s desire to kill off the SNP or are minded to give uber-Unionists licence to reduce the legislative scope of the Scottish Parliament. It is early days, but there is a real danger that it if the No campaign allows these partisan political objectives to dominate its mainstream campaign and message then it runs the risk of alienating itself from an electorate that is disinterested in politics and generally holds politicians in contempt.
The No campaign’s message – probably inevitably having decided to focus on a defence of the status quo – is relentlessly negative. It is all very well saying that you believe that Scotland would be viable as an independent country, but if your every pronouncement focuses on: Salmond’s failings, the SNP’s weaknesses and a host of (good, bad and indifferent) reasons why an independent Scotland is a non-starter you are running a negative campaign. Put aside the question of whether the electorate has any stomach for a relentless two year barrage of negativity, the No campaign may be making a serious mistake with this approach. It is an article of faith that No campaigners must publicly agree that Scotland could be viable as an independent country; what happens – how do they respond – if/when the Yes campaign presents voters with a viable and believable independence narrative?
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the No campaign may be misunderstanding DevoMax minded voters. Poll after poll shows somewhere between 20-30% of the Scottish electorate inclined to support enhanced devolution. With independence and the status quo commanding only circa 30% of the vote, these are crucial voters. It is difficult to know what motivates them, but their inclination toward Devo-Max is characteristic of a broad phenomenon developing across Scottish society. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey data suggests that Scots are transferring or have transferred their focus and trust from the established Westminster institutions to the emergent Holyrood ones. In this process, Scots do not seem to be driven by ‘Braveheart’ patriotism or narrow national identity; it appears to be a cold calculation based on growing confidence in the Scottish Parliament as the nation’s principal political forum and the institution that they most trust to further Scottish interests.
The No campaign’s in/out vote status quo strategy swims against this tide and they appear to be premising their campaign on the assumption that while DevoMax inclined voters may flirt with ill-defined notions of enhanced devolution, they remain at heart loyal to the concept of Britain and its Westminster-centred political institutions, and, if sufficiently scared of ‘Alex in Salmondland’, will follow their fundamental instincts and vote for the status quo. Most seriously, the reluctance to engage in the DevoMax debate and/or offer a reliable route to enhanced devolution leaves the No campaign having to rely on voters’ fears, and most importantly means that it is unable to articulate a vision for Scotland that appeals to the the hopes and aspirations of those voters currently ill served by the current Westminster focused political settlement, and who may see this referendum as the politicians’ opportunity to offer them the prospect of a better future.
As regards the Yes campaign, there are many failures and missed opportunities to consider. However, the first and (arguably) the most serious is the fact that the SNP’s plans and proposals for a post-independence Scotland aren’t even gaining much traction with committed independence supporters. A quick scan of the conversations on nationalist blogs shows that the policies that have had an outing – the pound, financial regulation and defence etc. – have not set the nationalist heather alight, to put it mildly. It is early days, but if the SNP aren’t really selling these policies to the thoughtful commentators of ‘Better Nation’, then the Yes campaign is in some serious trouble.
To be fair, these policies have a great deal more substance than their reception suggests. History tells us that a new state emerges by one of two basic routes and that the route taken does much to define the character of the emergent state and (in particular) its relationship with the demitting state. Where the route to independence is through a bitter armed conflict (e.g. America, Ireland and Algeria) a wide gulf opens up between the emergent and the demitting states and there tends to be little visible coordination and cooperation between the two after independence. Conversely, where a state emerges through a peaceful process of constitutional negotiation (e.g. Canada, Australia and New Zealand) there is a great deal of continuing cooperation between the emergent and demitting states.
In particular the emergent state often relies very heavily on its continuing use of the demitting state’s political, social and economic institutions until it develops its own arrangements. No campaigners have made much of the thought that this sort of post-independence continuity of institutions degrades the reality and/or integrity of an independent Scotland’s status. It is a poor argument (who questions the reality or validity of Canadian, Australian or New Zealand independence) but they are currently making it successfully, and unless the Yes campaign find a convincing narrative to explain the merits of such proposals these attacks will continue to damage their prospects of success. However, despite their troubles in this area, if the Yes campaign finds the necessary narrative the idea of independent Scotland continuing to share institutions with the remaining United Kingdom could very well receive a favourable hearing from voters: in particular from those inclined to a Devo-Max arrangement.
The SNP have made much of the virtue of positive campaigning; and in particular its role in their 2011 election success. Without doubting the merits of this approach, the ‘happy-clappy’ tenor of the Yes campaign so far suggests that many Yes campaigners may not yet really understand the nature of the battle to which they are joined (conversely, the No campaigners seem to fully understand what is at stake). Remember, history shows us that: American Loyalists had no place in independent America; Unionists had no place in independent Ireland; and the Pied Noir had no place in independent Algeria. At the other end of the spectrum, for the powers that be in London this referendum is effectively a ‘ballot box’ rebellion against the United Kingdom constitution and its institutions – and we all know what happens to the leaders and supporters of a failed rebellion.
Perhaps it is because the current generation of Nationalists have grown up in the softer accommodating world of devolutionist Unionism. Whatever the reason, Yes campaigners who (for example) complain of unfair media bias or those that make comfortable assumptions about Westminster’s future intentions very quickly need to come to terms with the ruthless and determined nature of old-school Unionism – if not it is a mistake that will likely cost them and Scotland dear. Yes campaigners should be very aware that, whatever their best intentions, there will be no shaking hands and letting bygones be bygones when the result is declared. This referendum is a very high stakes game, not only because it challenges the deepest foundations of the UK state but because the losers lose everything. Scottish Labour (and many in the mainstream Scottish media) may now be relishing the prospect of ‘cleaning house’ after an SNP defeat – but they know (all too well) that if the result goes the other way then as the cheerleaders of the former Union they will have no place in the public life of an independent Scotland.
Of course with the likely date of the referendum being 2014, we have seen no more than the campaign’s opening salvos and whilst both the Yes and No campaigns are already campaigning actively, the real action of the referendum is still in the strategic positioning around its process. Whilst many eloquent voices in the blogosphere – Gerry Hassan, Better Nation and the Burd – are calling for both campaigns to set out an inspiring vision for Scotland’s future and engage in a thoughtful discussion of their proposals, this understandable view perhaps misunderstands the importance of the strategic manoeuvring.
Low politics these manoeuvres may be (and they are certainly not inspiring), but it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Devo-Max second question. The Unionist parties have already come out firmly against it. This must be so, if Scotland were to vote for Devo-Max, such a vote would commit the Unionist parties to delivering a policy that they cannot, and will not, be able to deliver without the approval of the wider British electorate (either in a general election or single issue referendum) – which of course they may not do. Moreover, it is doubtful that the Unionist parties could sell proposals for further devolution to their English/Welsh and Northern Irish MPs before the current Scotland Act has bedded in and proved its worth. Accordingly, even if the Unionist parties are minded to deliver further devolution and could overcome these difficulties, it is unlikely that any proposal for enhanced devolution (the DevoMax second question) could or would reach the statute book until well after the 2025 Westminster election.
It falls therefore to Alex Salmond to carry the Devo-Max torch and keep the idea of a second question alive. From a Unionist point of view, this is simply to ensure that SNP get a ‘consolation prize’ in a contest that the Unionists believe that the SNP themselves know they cannot win. Unfortunately, this is a self-serving argument and doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The evidence from almost every opinion poll suggests that Devo-Max would win the referendum by some distance. Why therefore does Alex Salmond want the Devo-Max question? The answer is that the SNP no more wants a Devo-Max question than the Unionist parties do. What the SNP wants is that the voters (and in particular the Devo-Max inclined voters) blame the Unionist parties for denying them the chance of voting for this constitutional arrangement.
We already know the No campaign narrative: ‘the UK can discuss further devolution after Scotland decides whether it is in or out of the Union’. As for the Yes campaign we can only guess, but it will likely run something along the lines of: ‘we tried to get Devo-Max on the ballot, but the Unionists prevented it so if you want Scotland to have further powers, independence really is your only option’. Of course, it is in this context that the SNP’s redefining of independence (keep the Queen and the pound etc.) starts to make sense. The SNP are gambling (but it’s probably a good gamble) that if denied the option on the ballot, Devo-Max inclined voters will cast their votes for an independence that looks remarkably like the Devo-Max arrangement that they wanted.
Getting rid of Devo-Max – and making sure the Unionists get the blame for it – really is the SNP’s only possible route to referendum success. When Alex Salmond floats the Devo-Max option or proposes a second question on the ballot, it is simply to force opposition from the Unionists (who reliably oppose the matter without thinking). All in all it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the outcome of these Devo-Max and second question manoeuvrings will decide the referendum result. Neither side wants (or can live or succeed with) a second question, but whose ever narrative the Devo-Max inclined voters believe will likely pick up most of their votes and win the referendum.
The military historian and strategist B.H. Liddell Hart said: ‘The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men.’ More simply put: ‘the man who runs the battle wins the battle’; and although and we are still in the opening ‘Phony War’ stages of the campaign, Alex Salmond is still very much running the battle. For all the No campaign’s early victories, these are just the opening skirmishes and the strategic initiative remains with Alex Salmond – it is still his referendum to win!