It's the campaign that just can't say no. “Better Together”, the unionist campaign for the independence referendum, finally gets underway tomorrow trying to avoid the word “no”, because of its negative connotations. This may cause some voter confusion because if you google “Better Together”, you discover that it is the NHS patient experience campaign. We knew that Scotland wasn't in the best of health, but we didn't realise she was actually in intensive care.
Better Together brings to an end a curious phase in Scottish politics where unionism has been almost completely out of the picture. Labour has been so anxious not to be allied a “Tory union” led by David Cameron, that it has allowed the case for sticking with Britain to go by default.. Until now - as the former Chancellor, Alastair Darling, unveils the campaign at Edinburgh's Napier University. This was the venue used by Alex Salmond to launch the National Conversation five years ago and it's taken that long to reply.
Supporters are said to include the former Scottish Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, and the former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy. With all these stars of the past, the campaign sounds a little like a political version of The Expendables. But details are sketchy, and organisers of the campaign have been curiously reluctant to return calls. However, it sounds like tomorrow's event will be more like a victory celebration than a campaign launch because unionists have persuaded themselves the referendum is all but won.
They point to recent polls, like the Ipsos/Mori last week which suggest that support for independence, even asking the SNP's favoured question, is down to the 35% mark. Alistair Darling has been touring the editorial offices of the Scottish press insisting that the current difficulties in the eurozone have eclipsed independence, and that Scots will vote for certainty, stability and the Union come October 2014. Labour believe, further, that Alex Salmond is not the force he was – and that his involvement with Rupert Murdoch and his bumptious manner is turning Scots off the man Labour always call “Eck”.
Unionists also believe that Salmond has made a fundamental error trying to “fiddle” the meaning of independence to make it sound like a new improved UK, complete with the Queen, the pound and UK military bases etc.. The SNP minister Alex Neil insists that Scots will still be “British” after independence. But if so – why bother going through all the complex business of leaving the UK if only to join it again?
So, is the referendum done and dusted? Can Great Britons sleep easily in their beds again? Well, it is hard to ignore the message of the opinion polls. The one constant of Scottish politics for the last thirty years has been that only around a third of Scots say they want to leave the UK, and nothing much has changed there even after five years of Nationalist government. However, no one with any political sense would write off Alex Salmond, who remains one of the most gifted and astute political leaders in Britain. Only a year ago, he pulled off a result none of us thought possible when he won a landslide victory in the Scottish parliamentary election returning an absolute majority in a proportional parliament.
The big question for both sides in this campaign is what happens to the disenfranchised middle: the vast majority of Scots who want neither separation nor the status quo, but favour something closer to the Devolution Plus option proposed by Reform Scotland. This would give the Scottish parliament control of income tax, corporation tax and oil revenues while leaving VAT and national insurance with the UK exchequer. It is a version of federalism, where the Scottish parliament achieves something close to fiscal autonomy while leaving issues like currency, defence and foreign relations with Westminster.
Alex Salmond has, of course, offered to put a devolution max-type question on the ballot paper if civic Scotland could come up with one. He says this hasn't happened yet. There is as yet no consensus among the various organisations – trades unions, voluntary groups, churches, think tanks – about what the second question should be, and the UK government has anyway vetoed it. Certainly, within SNP circles there seems to be an assumption now that there will be just a single question. Which means that the focus now switches to whether or not the SNP's proposed question: “Do you agree that Scotland should become and independent country” is fair.
The unionists say it is not, and that “separation” and “leaving the UK” should be in there somewhere. I suspect there may be some redrafting of the SNP's question – but since it is already vastly clearer than other referendum questions of the recent past in places like Quebec, I suspect these will be minor. There also seems to be agreement on the UK Electoral Commission having some sort of oversight role, on 16 year olds getting to vote, and the referendum being delayed until 2014.
But the apparent resolution of these technical issues only exposes the fundamental problem of how those Scots who support neither independence nor the status quo make their voice heard. David Cameron and the Chancellor, George Osborne, have been hinting that if Scotland votes no, there will be more powers for the parliament. Sources close to the Chancellor say that all of income taxes might be devolved, instead of just ten pence in the pound as set out in the new Scotland Act. This will be very difficult to sell to most Scots, who remember only too well the promises made by the former Tory prime minister, Lord Home, of a “better devolution” if Scots voted no in the 1979 devolution referendum. That never materialised. Better Together's leaders will be under sustained questioning on this, and unless they come up with a coherent and guaranteed “middle way” they may find their campaign falls at the first hurdle.
Alex Salmond thinks that he can persuade a lot of voters who don't favour independence to lend their votes to him as the only way of ensuring that they get devolution plus/max. He might at that. If the SNP manages to get a good result – anything over 43% voting yes – Salmond will be able to claim that the constitutional issue is not resolved. He could go into the Scottish election in 2016 pledging to demand a second referendum, on devolution max, on the grounds that the status quo is untenable.
This might suit the Nationalists rather well. The SNP, as the columnist and former Nationalist candidate George Kerevan, has written, is no longer a independence party in the old-fashioned sense. He says the SNP is seeking a new “confederal United Kingdom” in which the constituent parts agree to share monetary management, banking regulation and such like. Whether this is what most SNP members mean by independence is another matter. But Alex Salmond's other great advantage is that his party is so united behind him that he is able to call the shots. Independence nowadays is whatever Alex Salmond says it is.
So this referendum campaign isn't over till its over. And even then, it may still not be over.