Reflections on the No Campaign: Two Threats and One Opportunity

Summer is over — and so is my little break from this blog. As we’ve recently passed the one-year-to-go mark, it’s high time for some reflections on where we stand.

It was a slow summer. Both sides in the campaign seemingly ran out of things to say and resorted to throwing sand in our eyes. “Labour for independence” was exposed as an SNP front. Yes complained about being hacked. No complained about an under-the-counter payment made to an “independent” commentator writing in the press. Mr Salmond popped up from time to time, making incoherent speeches that fell flat, looking silly parading himself alongside sports stars, and flying the Saltire behind the PM’s back at Wimbledon, grinning inanely like an out-of-place schoolboy in a suit.

Beyond this — none of which is worth noting (apart from the hacking, which looks straightforwardly unlawful) — nothing happened. The Scottish Labour party and its leadership disappeared almost entirely, apart from Paul Sinclair using a Moderately Bad Word on twitter to describe the First Minister. The Scottish media failed to notice that the Scottish Labour party and its leadership had disappeared: it was the great unreported story of the summer. The British civil service, as it does every year, wound down through July and went on holiday for August. This meant that there were no new Scotland Analysis Papers (more on this in a moment) and, on the other side, everything went into a holding pattern, as we circle round and round the landing pad that is the long awaited and much heralded Independence White Paper.

It is still the case that the polls have moved very little since Better Together and Yes Scotland were launched. There is the odd rogue poll that looks different and out of line, but by and large the polls persistently suggest that No hovers in the high 50s with Yes in the low 30s. Personally, despite the fact that No has held its apparent advantage over Yes for more than 18 months now, I’d say it’s all to play for. The high 50s does not mean the Union is safely home and dry. While the Yes vote looks solid, some of the current No vote may be soft. No voters could become persuadable the other way; current Yes voters don’t look very likely to change their minds (or, even if they do, they’re not likely to change their votes). Informed opinion seems to be that the gap in the polls will close. Yes will build some momentum. No will have some threats to overcome — the rise of UKIP, the June 2014 European elections, the fact that the UK polls do not show a commanding lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour party, etc. All this is said often.

More than this, however, is a strong sense that everyone has made up their minds already, for the time being. This is a long, long campaign. Hacks, insiders and protagonists (on both sides) got bored with it this summer. The early autumn has seen some faint risings, as the party conferences get underway and as the clock ticks ever more loudly in its countdown to the Independence White Paper.  Most of those who are undecided, it seems to me, have decided not to make their minds up until much nearer referendum day. As the First Minister has said, this is the phoney war. The real battle is still to come — and it will reach its peak next summer.

Which is why those of us on the No side of the argument should be worried about how this summer went. A repeat in July-August 2014 of what we saw (or, rather, did not see) in July-August 2013 would pose a serious risk.

Two Threats

The “short campaign” — that final regulated 16-week period when we fall into something resembling a recognisable election campaign — will be critical. You can bet your bottom groat that Yes have a grand plan for this period, and will be all guns blazing. Is the same true on the No side? Will we be ready? We face two structural weaknesses. The first is that the British civil service, as they always do, will still wind down during July and will still go on holiday in August. I’d be surprised if there are many further Scotland Analysis Papers after about June next year. Why does this matter? It matters not because the papers themselves are widely read (they clearly are not) but because they contribute so much to setting both the tone and the substance of the debate on the No side of the argument.

For example, it was only when George Osborne presented the second paper in the series (on currency) that arguments first really crystallised as to how difficult it would be for an independent Scotland unilaterally to declare to the Bank of England and the Treasury that it wanted a currency union with the rest of the UK. Since then the question of the currency has been revisited in numerous debates and in several published papers, but the Scotland Analysis Paper on the currency remains the leading work and the most important point of reference. Better Together, with their limited resources, could never have produced the volume or weight of authoritative analysis on the currency that one finds in the Treasury’s paper.

This is not surprising: Better Together employs maybe a dozen or so people; the British civil service employs in the region of half a million. They’re not all working on the Scotland Analysis programme, of course, but several of the brightest brains in the Treasury and in the Cabinet Office are, and it shows. My point is that it may be no coincidence that when the British civil service winds down for its annual summer holidays, the campaign starts to look more threadbare. One question for my friends at Better Together is what plans they have not only to cope with this but to lead the argument next summer, when the unrivalled resource of the civil service machine is staffed only by the departmental nightwatchman and his dog? The campaign will crescendo next summer — unlike TS Eliot it will end with a bang not a whimper — and Unionists from all the parties need to be planning for that now.

The second structural weakness is the relationship between Better Together and the three political parties under its umbrella. It’s Better Together’s job to campaign for and to secure a No vote in the referendum (obviously). But it cannot really be for Better Together to explain in detail what No means. That task is for the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, first in their Scottish iterations and then, one assumes, as UK parties. Will the parties play ball? One year out, it’s a dangerously open question. We know that all three Scottish parties are committed at least to exploring options for further devolution. But are Ed Miliband and David Cameron? Will the parties be able to agree the outlines of a package of further devolution, so that what will happen after a No vote becomes clearer before the referendum? Last week on Newsnight Scotland the Chief Executive of Better Together, Blair McDougall, said that he thought this should happen. I agree (as I did on the same programme). But will it?

I’m highly optimistic that this can all happen after a No vote. I don’t buy for a second the scare stories put out recently by some well-placed SNP insiders that a No vote means that devolution will be put firmly on the back-burner and, indeed, that we’d be more likely to see a withdrawal of devolution than its further expansion after 2014. The opposite of this seems to me to be the case. The Unionist parties do not like this referendum at all. They are not enjoying it. They resent the fact that it is happening. They mean to win, to win big, and to put in place after a No vote a deal for Scotland that will be so attractive that the very thought of doing Indyref No 2 becomes unthinkable.

But the point here is that putting together a deal along these lines might be needed in order to attain a convincing No vote: it may be that we cannot wait until after the referendum to do the work. This is a threat, however, that can surely be turned into an opportunity.

One Opportunity

Too much of devolution’s past has been concerned to appease (or buy off) the separatists. This must stop. The future of devolution should be concerned with the kinds of substantive policies we’d like to see Scotland pursue and should be designed to deliver a responsible, grown-up politics for Scotland, instead of the stymied, half-baked politics we currently see in Holyrood. MSPs are currently responsible for spending an extraordinary amount of public money. More than two-thirds of public money spent in Scotland is the responsibility of Scottish ministers in Holyrood. In international terms this is remarkably high — Scotland already has a generous devolution settlement as far as spending powers go — in Australia and the US the states are responsible only for about 46% of public spend; in Spain it is 49%; in Canada and Germany it is 63% and in Scotland the IPPR have put it as high as 70%.

But even after the Scotland Act 2012 comes fully into force, it will still be the case that MSPs are responsible for raising only a fraction of what they spend: most of the Scottish budget comes from the block grant. This means that Scottish Governments can avoid making the sorts of treacherously difficult tax and spend decisions that Treasury ministers take a great deal of time agonising over. It means that Scottish ministers can take all the credit for spending wisely without having to shoulder the burden of taxing responsibly. This is unbalanced and, more pertinently, it has done precious little to alleviate the grievance culture that has so besmirched Scottish politics for so long. It is still, even after all these years of successful devolution, far too easy for those with political agendas to blame Westminster / London / the Tories. Contrary to the aspirations of those who designed it, the unbalanced nature of devolution has fomented, not squashed, the grievance culture of Scottish politics. This, too, must stop.

It is frequently said that “what Scots want” is not on the ballot paper. “What Scots want”, we are told, is more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Only a minority want independence. Only a minority are happy with the status quo. What we want is further devolution. Or so we are often told. Personally, I very much doubt it. At least, I very much doubt that “what Scots want” is the devolution of more powers to Holyrood. Earlier this month Lord Ashcroft’s extensive polling found that most Scots could not tell you anything very much about which powers are devolved to Holyrood and which reserved to Westminster. This does not surprise me. And if it’s true that most Scots don’t know what’s already devolved, how could it also be the informed opinion of most Scots that more things should be devolved?

In fact, huge powers are devolved — which is why the Scottish Parliament is already responsible for such a large share of public spend. But it’s not just the quantity of powers that are devolved: it’s their electoral salience. What Holyrood does matters to people. Thus, Holyrood is already responsible for health and the NHS, for education from nurseries to universities, for criminal justice and policing, for local government and for culture and the arts. Elections, both north and south of the border, are won or lost on these matters. These are not dry, technical bits of public policy that keep themselves away from the front pages: these are the very stuff of mainstream electoral politics.

None the less, myths have their hold over us. And whether it is mythical or real, one of the great refrains of Scottish politics is that “Scots want” a more powerful Scottish Parliament. For me, this should be a story not about digging through the list of reserved powers to see what more can be devolved: it should be a story about balancing the extensive powers that have already been devolved with commensurate responsibilities to ensure that those powers are exercised in a manner that accords with “what Scots want”.

At the moment, the SNP are able to portray a Yes vote as the means to achieve this. Thus, Mr Salmond is able to say that it is only the political union with the rest of the UK that he wants to terminate, and that after a Yes vote the social union, the currency union, and the defence and security union will continue much as they are now. This is independence (to the horror of the more radical supporters of his cause) diluted to become indy-lite, amounting in his spin and doublespeak to not much more than “full fiscal autonomy”.

But this is a false and disingenuous prospectus. For independence cannot be collapsed into devo-max or devo-anything-else. A strong Scottish Parliament giving Scots the autonomy they crave within a stable and ongoing Union is possible only by voting No. A social union between two independent states is a fiction, a yarn spun by Mr Salmond and his acolytes in an attempt to deceive voters who don’t want independence into voting for it anyway, by pretending that it is something which it is not. Taxpayers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will not pay for Scottish benefits or pensions unless they are all part and parcel of the same polity. We in Scotland will have no further part of the British welfare state if we choose on 18 September to become an independent state. The political union is the lynchpin: remove it and the rest will fall away too.

Mr Salmond wants to occupy this ground because he knows that that is the only way he can win. It’s the classic move from Political Playbook 101: tack to the centre before election day in order to win by not frightening the masses. Thus independence is presented not as the radical break that it is, but as the logical next step in the ongoing process of the transfer of power from London to Edinburgh.

That Mr Salmond is able to occupy any of this ground, however, is a sign of the weakness of the Unionist position. For this is our territory, not his. Independence is not the next iteration of devolution: it would mean the end of devolution. Ripping Britain into two is a means not of preserving the social union, but of tearing it up. Separation is a way not of bringing two neighbourly peoples together but of forcing divisions between them.

The challenge for the Unionists, for Better Together and for the political parties alike, is to seize this ground. If it is true that “what Scots want” is neither independence nor the status quo, but a stronger Scottish Parliament giving Scotland greater autonomy within the UK constitutional order, then we have to do two things: we must explain that a No vote is the only credible means to achieve this; and we have to show that a No vote will in fact achieve it. The former task is for Better Together; the latter is for the political parties.

A robust, responsible, grown-up devolution within a Union fit for the twenty-first century is an exciting prospect. We are told that this is “what Scots want”. It’s certainly what I want. The wonder is that no political party yet seems to want to make this territory theirs. Whoever does so will be the winners. Much of the number-crunching has already been done, in earnest policy papers from such folk as the devo+ group and the IPPR. What now needs to happen is to translate the technical work into a vision, into a Manifesto for a New Union.

This is our great opportunity: now to seize it.