Let’s be clear. When a campaign has to deny it’s in trouble, it’s probably in trouble. When there is doubt expressed about who the leader is, there is probably doubt about who the leader is. When senior people claim there is no problem, there is a problem. Probably.
Put it another way, Better Together should be coasting by now. The claims of the Yessers should have been debunked by the unprecedented series of British government reports dismantling the arguments for independence – and they should have been believed by a majority of voters because they have an inherent trust in the Whitehall system.
The lunacy of reviving an old nation, too small to survive in the globalised world, laughably short of resources and expertise, should have turned the Yes case to dust as sensible Scots realised it was built on Salmond’s ambition and Anglophobia.
After all, haven’t the drivers of the economy, the highly respected business bosses, not given their dire warnings of unemployment, falling profits, EU exclusion and corporate flittings? Hasn’t the EU club of nations broken its own rules by engaging directly in the domestic affairs of a member state to make clear the virtual impossibility of re-entry? Did not NATO say the door would slam on a nation giving up nuclear weapons? Has not the proud Labour Party, the natural home of left-leaning Scots, outlined its vision of greatly enhanced powers and clear tax-raising plans to outflank the separatists with Devo Max? Isn’t Labour well poised to sweep back to power at Westminster and deliver? And hasn’t the compliant media destroyed Salmond’s reputation as a smart operator, revealing him instead to be insanely ambitious and slippery? Game, set and match to the Union. If only.
It should be working smoothly with Westminster Big Beast Alistair Darling imperiously awaiting victory. Yet even the attempts to bring in different voices – perfectly justifiably – is read as signs of a power struggle in a flagging operation. I can’t for the life of me see why Douglas Alexander isn’t used by BT and why he wasn’t from the start. He seems to have floated about outside the bubble giving his own analysis that wasn’t part of the official script. Why? I don’t even think his interventions were publicly endorsed by Darling and the campaign. And then Gordon Brown began rumbling away in another offshoot group and the impression gained ground that nobody was coordinating, possibly because of the personal differences so typical of Labour and glaringly exposed between Brown and Blair. You just know that afterwards the truth will emerge of the tensions inside BT. I wonder if Alistair has already sold the idea of his next book?
In any case, the Union argument is built on a myth. It is that there is an optimistic message about where the Union is going. There IS a case in history and they’re right to use it. There IS a case in principle about working together and they should use it. But it falls apart when you ask what the Union is for today and what it does for us…if it’s fit for purpose, if it can adapt, respond and regenerate.
The lengthy campaign has opened our eyes to any number of systematic failures…dismal pensions, low wages, long hours, in-work poverty, lack of workers rights, a housing shortage, unchecked debt – both personal and public, social immobility, poor health, premature death, an obscene wealth gap…it goes on…into nuclear weapons and their renewal, worship of bankers, appalling productivity and a burgeoning Upper House stuffed with jobsworths.
Britain is a failure and even those who are not nationalists or Yes voters can see it. Where once they might have looked to the Liberals, they now turn away in disgust. Where once they turned to Labour, they see an unconvincing figure as a future Prime Minister and hear a narrative which apes the Tories on welfare and spending and immigration. Labour, like BT, should be cruising against a right-wing doctrinaire government hammering working people. And yet, the polling evidence looks consistent and has Labour struggling. It is a fact that in Scotland a revived and well-led Labour with a powerful story to tell and an activist base would be leading the No campaign to victory. I don’t for a minute think there are enough nationalists in Scotland to win a referendum. It has to be swung by convincing non-nats that this is the only way to get a socially just country. But Labour has neither story to tell not talent to tell it.
It is an obvious question, rarely asked: If this is Scotland’s referendum and Labour is the lead party for No, why are no MSPs fronting it? I read of Alexander or John Reid, of Brown and Murphy and of course of Darling…but where is Johann, or Iain Gray, Paul Martin or Patricia Ferguson? Where is the local talent, bred at Holyrood, schooled in opposing the SNP, attuned to Scotland’s debate, drafted in to lead Better Together? Isn’t it a story in itself about what has happened to Labour – the talent prefers London and even a retired politician from the discredited Lords who has so far excused himself from the debate, is preferred to Labour’s parliamentary group.
Labour learned decades ago about fratricide and how the public detest divided parties. Well they’re in a divided campaign now which has managed to give the impression of not knowing what it’s doing and who should be promoting it. For all the disparate components of Yes, it is pretty much universally on-message, and yet has no single figurehead. It is true Salmond and the SNP drive the electoral element and he is the easily the most powerful figure, but no man or party can control of a grassroots movement. It is self-generating and I believe that if Salmond was seen to exert a too direct influence, that movement would revolt. Yes audiences do not think this its Salmond’s cause. It is their cause.
They coincide, of course they do, but it feels increasingly that Salmond is an agent of the campaign rather than the other way round. But, as we prepare to welcome David Cameron – and I do, he is our Prime Minister until independence – the No people can also ponder another little noted fact: Salmond hasn’t begun to campaign yet. The attempts to demonise him are an insult to the intelligence of Scots but I recognise he has image problems with some of those who don’t know him.
But they make a mistake if they think he is not respected and admired. There is no one I know who denies Salmond’s outstanding ability as a hands-on campaigner. It is a rare gift, the ability to relate to people even those who are hostile, and to win them over. The heavy lifting is being done by a people-led mass movement but it is possible that the final push to a Yes win will come from the old fashioned political skills of pressing flesh when Salmond decides it’s time for the real campaign to start.by