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David Cameron, independence referendum, SNP., transition document

Aliens in warning against independence. SNP needs to lead constitution debate, not follow it.

    Things fall apart. The SNP has got the right question, but it isn’t getting the right answers.   The Nationalists have been on the defensive for the last six months over relatively obscure procedural issues about relations with Europe, currency union and the mechanics of transition to independence.  The Yes for Scotland campaign has failed to make a significant impact.   The momentum from the 2011 election landslide has largely spent and the Nationalists are turning into their old embattled and defensive selves.   They need to think carefully now about how to combat all this and get off the back foot. 

   The problem is partly the sheer weight of the forces against them.  Better Together have the UK Government, the three unionist parties in Westminster and Scotland, the UK Treasury and civil service and the Scottish and UK press on their side, plus fellow travellers like Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission. The Nationalists have Alex Salmond and a few loose cannons. 

       On the morning when the Scottish government’s fiscal commission reported that monetary union was a perfectly sensible option, a leading Scottish daily’s front page read:  “Legal experts in warning on independence”.  The press coverage of the referendum has been reduced to a kind of pro forma  “……….in warning on independence” (subs to fill).    This kind of thing infuriates the SNP who insist, rightly, that you can find legal experts who will say practically anything. They don’t understand why the Scottish press is so hostile to independence.  But the fact is that they are.

    The SNP can’t change the weather, so they will have to find ways to stop getting soaked. They have to stop being on the defensive.   They need to be realistic about the climate of opinion among Scottish voters, and the difficulty of persuading a country that lacks confidence in itself to go it alone. That means working back to where the voters actually are, rather than where the SNP would want them to be.  I means going back to the multi-option referendum Scottish voters sought but are being denied.  The SNP needs to recreate, and lead the home rule coalition,just as Alex Salmond originally wanted. 

   This isn’t going to be won by a brilliant campaign as in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections where the SNP came from ten points behind Labour to winning a landslide.  A referendum is very different from a general election. It is for keeps – and that is scary.

  The unionists press can always be relied upon to pour cold water on any suggestion that the Scots are capable of managing their own affairs.  The howls of derision that greeted the Scottish government’s document on the transition to independence, were entirely predictable too. And the criticism was not without some justification, since it did rather look as if Alex was going to create the universe in six days.
The truth is that a the Nationalists themselves have only recently begun to think in practical terms about things like negotiating a constitution and are uncomfortable with the mechanics of instant nation building. The SNP has been a brilliant vote-winning machine, but it has never been anywhere near winning independence, and under Alex Salmond it has always pursued a gradualist, incremental approach to self-government, rather than a big bang. And any way you look at it, independence is a leap of faith. They need to bridge the Scottish confidence gap, the psychology of national defeatism.

The way to do this is to start focussing attention on the confidence gap in the unionist camp: the alternatives to independence. What powers are the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats actually proposing? What is THEIR` constitutional transition programme ? The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, has performed an elegant U-turn recently on powers and insists that the Tories want to offer something better than the big zero they delivered after 1979. But what? The Libdems are talking about a full scale reshaping of the UK constitution towards federalism – which if anything is more ambitious than the SNP’s idea of independence in the UK, since it would involve big changes in Westminster. Labour are rapidly retreating from any concrete proposals at all, as they see their chance of winning the 2015 UK general election improving. Alistair Darling has started using the formulation that “there is no consensus” on any new powers, which is exactly what Margaret Thatcher said after 1979. It is very difficult to see how the opposition parties are ever going to get their act together on this. Unless Alex Salmond does it for them.
The most productive move for the SNP right now – and indeed for Scotland – would be to let these ideas, not just their own, become the focus of national debate. The Scottish government should seek to draw the parties out on their plans, perhaps by offering a National Convention on the Constitution in 2014, at which all the constitutional options could be explored, so that the people of Scotland get the information they need. This will force the opposition parties to state their case, put their cards on the table and let the voters see whether they stack up. It would have the added advantage to the Nationalists that, if the vote is No, they will at least have made themselves part of the process of delivering the “next” stage of devolution.
The SNP have nothing to fear from this consensualism. The big problem for the unionist parties is that they are afraid to be seen on the same platform. Well, that is not a problem for the SNP, or the Yes Campaign. The more the Nationalists are associated with a general move towards greater powers for the Scottish parliament, the more their credibility will be enhanced. And the better Alex Salmond will be able to argue, in the campaign, that it was the UK government, not they, who insisted that it was a single question referendum which effectively disenfranchised supporters of devolution max, more, plus etc..
Alex Salmond is the only political leader in Scotland with the ability to carry this off – he is still very popular and is the nearest thing Scotland has had to a national leader in three hundred years. The more he draws the other parties onto the terrain of constitutional change, and gets them talking about their ideas, the less they can accuse him of being away with the constitutional fairies. The more their proposals are examined, the less complex and difficult the case for independence will seem. And who knows they may find that there is a lot of agreement among them about the kind of problems that Scotland faces in trying to revive its economy.
The lesson of the referendums of 1979 and 1997 is that the Scottish voters say Yes when they see their political parties co-operating with each other and No when they see them falling out in unconstructive sectarianism. Since time immemorial Scottish opinion polls have shown that only around a third of Scots support formal independence, while the vast majority want greater powers for the Scottish parliament.   Of course, the Nationalists are aware of this and realise they will need to use new media, and broadcasting, to get their message across. But smart electioneering will only take them so far. 

    There is tension arising between the Yes Campaign and the SNP over who takes the lead on the campaign. And there is grumbling about the failure of Yes for Scotland to make a significant impact. Some are suggesting that Blair Jenkins, the leader of Y for S, “isn’t a politician” – which is true. But that should be his strength because the project certainly won’t succeed if it lapses into party tribalism.

There was actually nothing wrong with the transition programme document, which was well argued and simple. But the Yes campaign needs to find a way to express its case for independence with more conviction, elan and above all confidence, if it is to combat the inbuilt, small ‘c’ conservatism of the Scottish voters. The unionists are expert at feeding the fear that Scots have of ‘getting above themselves’. ‘A Constitution? A Scottish treasury? Och, we canny do things like that – we’re just Scots’. Almost every utterance of Alistair Darling, the chair of Better Together, is preceded by a silent “Who do you think you are?”.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


4 thoughts on “Aliens in warning against independence. SNP needs to lead constitution debate, not follow it.

  1. Us Scots need to get over this cringe we have and we need to stop believing that there will be jam offered to us tomorrow. There is none, just lots of gravy for the unionist MPs telling us we are better together (to be fair they aren't lying, its just that when they say 'we'they mean themselves rather than the rest of us!). Why should we believe anyone with such vested interests?David Cameron says we have the best of both worlds having two governments. Not convinced since one government was voted for by the majority of Scots while the other one wasnt. The UK government are bringing in a raft of benefit caps/cuts/taxes which punish the most vulnerable. The Scottish government are doing what they can with what little powers they have available to protect us. They are protecting us from Westminsters new 'polltax' by agreeing with COSLA to make up the shortfall of the the incoming Council Tax cut in April.For example Cornwall council have informed residents that 'all working age recipients of council tax benefit should pay an additional 25% contribution towards their council tax'. This will be ontop of the much hated Beroom Tax.No one in their right mind could look at the things westminster do and still honestly argue that we are better together, and if they do they are a barefaced liar. Labour Admitted in October last year they would be doing the exact same thing so people cannot expect them to come in and 'save us' from the coalition.Besides Labour have less than Scotlands best interests at heart. During their terms in power here with the liberals they sent back £1.5billion, while leaving councils hamstrung for decades with millions in PFI debt? In what way is that in Scotlands interests? Some councils paying £19m a year for PFI with that amount rising anually (set on LIBOR rigging i hear but dont know for sure) what could councils be doing with that money? education, care house building (that would build more houses annually than the 6 measly houses labour built in 8 years!)We are most certainly not better together (and if i'm being honest everywhere outside the M25 isnt better together with Westminster)

    Posted by Megz | February 11, 2013, 12:41 pm
  2. Dear Iain, hope you can find time this week to comment on the calls for slashing corporation tax by Monaco tax exile Jim mcColl and from billionaire Brian Soutar. If these two men continue to be the outriders for the SNP then they will lose in a landslide next year

    Posted by Anonymous | February 11, 2013, 5:39 pm
  3. As Scotland was extinguished in 1707 are we not all wasting our time.It was funny though to see how the BBC initially were trumpeting the Westminster governments paper and then dropped it pretty quick when they relised just what a disaster it was for the no campaign

    Posted by Anonymous | February 12, 2013, 3:04 pm
  4. "I means going back to the multi-option referendum Scottish voters sought but are being denied."Sorry if I'm being thick, but exactly HOW are the SNP meant to "go back to" a multi-option referendum?

    Posted by RevStu | February 13, 2013, 1:43 pm

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