Scotland staring into the abyss

September 9, 2014

Scottish Referendum

Scotland may be sleep-walking into separation and the blame-game has already started.

As a disenfranchised Edinburgh-born, but now living-in-England Scot, I feel sadness, anger, impotence, incredulity and despair about the prospect of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. I’m sure there are many others in similar circumstances who feel the same.

But where’s it gone wrong and can the Union be saved with 10 days to go? Let’s cut to the chase and put things in very stark terms.

The Better Together campaign suffers from very poor (mainly Labour) leadership and a Conservative Party in Westminster that is virtually clueless about the Scottish political culture. I can testify to that after having worked with Annabel Goldie (former Scottish Conservative Leader) and David Cameron (and his university and Conservative Central Office chums) for seven months in the run-up to the 2007 Scottish Parliament Elections.

The SNP ‘surge’ (if that’s what it is) coincided with the second televised Referendum debate. Anyone with a modicum of political judgement could see that Alistair Darling performed very badly and appeared under-briefed and unsure of himself. He stuttered over his words and was unconvincing – and I say that, very sadly, as a passionate Unionist supporter.

The problem for the Better Together campaign is that there has been no credible campaign figurehead who commands natural support in Scotland. No one of the stature of the late Donald Dewar. Alistair Darling has been the default campaign leader, but he is ‘No John F Kennedy’ to borrow a phrase levelled against the former US Vice-President Dan Quayle.

The ‘No’ campaign has been criticised for not articulating a positive vision for the Union, but with a track record of 307 years of broad success, one might think that would be enough for most people.

What they might be criticised for, however, is not, effectively articulating three core messages. Firstly, that Scots already benefit from much higher spending per person than in England or Wales. That, of course, is one of the reasons why Scotland benefits enormously from free NHS prescriptions and no university tuition fees. Scots are in a privileged and preferential position compared to the rest of the UK… but they need to be told!! Tell them and keep telling them Alistair!

Secondly, it is breath-taking hypocrisy for Alex Salmond to say there will be increasing privatisation of NHS services in Scotland if the Union remains in tact. His own government is solely responsible for the NHS in Scotland, so, if there is privatisation it will be because of his SNP government. Salmond is simply deceiving the Scottish people about this. In common parlance it would be called ‘lying’. Tell the Scottish people about this Alistair, and keep doing it again and again.

Thirdly, the Scottish people also need to know they are rolling an independence dice that offers no return. They are staring over the edge of a political precipice into the dark unknown. If the SNP’s reckless and entirely speculative optimism about Scotland’s oil reserves proves to be wrong…. then what? Quite simple: Scotland is on its own, and must live with the consequences of its decision forever. A vote for ‘Yes’ means the rest of the UK no longer has any responsibility for Scotland. Problems over currency, EU membership, NATO membership, monarchy, national debt…. are all yours. As a Scot, I say, don’t come bleating to England. Forget all that Braveheart stuff, just blame Alex Salmond – who will no doubt be long-gone from the political stage and taking no responsibility. Keep telling them this Alastair. When it comes to the ballot box, the voters need to know that they’re betting their future’s on the back of a blinkered bandwagon of nationalist hysteria.

The Labour–led Better Together campaign needs to hammer home these three messages in the next few days. I know it sounds negative, but it is the truth and, as seasoned political campaigners know, negative campaigning turns votes. Why vote to break the Union (with all its explicit and implicit assurances) when even more devolved power to Holyrood will happen. It makes no sense.

In the midst of this listless Better Together campaign is the Conservative Party. Personally, I have no doubt David Cameron is a sincerely committed Unionist and cares deeply about the Union. The problem is that Scotland has become a wasteland for the Tories, and the unimpressive Ruth Davidson offers no hope for renewal, and has had no discernible bearing on the Independence debate. This is a reflection on both her and her party. The Conservative Party needs disbanding in Scotland and a new centre-right entity formed in its place. The brand is toxic beyond redemption. Murdo Fraser MSP stood for the leadership of the Scottish Tories in 2011 on this platform, but was defeated by the party Establishment and thereafter banished to relative political obscurity. But he was courageous enough to say – and advocate – the unthinkable. But London Tories could not countenance a German-style CDU-CSU relationship. This showed that the London Conservatives have no understanding of how to rectify their continually disastrous showing in Scotland. They trundle on as widely ridiculed, and totally marginalised, political players at Holyrood.

David Cameron also showed flawed judgement by not insisting that people born in Scotland should vote in the Referendum. Even if some time restriction was imposed on this, it is astonishing to think that the country of one’s birth can leave the UK without that person having a vote on this. Given the successful nature of a truly integrated ‘united kingdom’, there are many Scots living in other parts of the UK who can only now watch from the side-lines. I would hazard a guess that the ‘No’ campaign would have found a huge level of support in this totally disenfranchised constituency.

The penny is now dropping in Westminster. Scotland could indeed vote to leave the Union. The Union can still be saved, but, if so, this will be done despite a poorly-led ‘No’ campaign including a Conservative element that has no meaningful understanding of the Scottish psyche and Scottish political culture. At the last moment, Quebec pulled back…. just… from the brink of Independence. For those of us who care passionately about the Union, that is probably the best we can now hope for in Scotland.


John Read was Campaign PR Director for the Scottish Conservatives, based in Edinburgh for seven months, in the run-up to and during the 2007 Scottish Parliament Elections. He is Founder-Director of ReadDillon Ltd, an international campaigns and political consultancy.