Former First Minister Henry McLeish has warned the pro-Unionist campaign runs the risk of appearing “anti-Scottish” in the run-up to the referendum on independence unless distance is sought from Westminster.
In a wide-ranging interview ahead of an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow, Holyrood columnist McLeish claimed London had positioned itself in the driving seat at a time when embracing a sense of Scottishness was more crucial than ever two years from polling day.
It came as the ex-Labour leader renewed calls for a two-question ballot paper amid claims the move, which has gained traction with First Minister Alex Salmond, must be backed by the unionist camp if they are to satisfy public appetite.
Ahead of a referendum expected in 2014, McLeish said the likes of Labour had “wasted five precious years since the seismic victory of the SNP in 2007” and now needed to offer voters an alternative beyond “status quo unionism”.
“… Holyrood has a huge future ahead of it,” said McLeish. “Whatever happens to the independence vote in 2014, Scotland and its people and its parliament are on the march whether the unionist parties like it or not.
“And in that sense I’d like to have seen devolution seeing a thousand ideas bloom but for some reason again much of this debate in the run-up to 2014 is being orchestrated, directed by Westminster and not by Holyrood.”
A level of “complacency” surrounding the cross-party Better Together campaign, which former Chancellor Alistair Darling launched the month before last, could have serious consequences ahead of 2014, according to McLeish.
He added: “The unionist campaign has got to show that it has empathy with devolution and what it has achieved. There is a real danger that the made in Westminster tag becomes distinctively anti-Scottish.
“The problem about that is if you’ve been following the debate about the currency union that Salmond might want to go into if he is independent, I think the Westminster parties and the unionists were quite right to say don’t read into that too much, we’ll decide, you won’t decide.
“But it actually didn’t come across as a kind of position to be dealt with after the election. It was basically saying this is a punishment that we’re thinking about so just don’t bother to go there anyway. And it’s the tone of the campaign which I think is worrying.”
Failure to provide a second question could culminate in members of the electorate either siding with independence or refusing to turn out to vote, McLeish warned, as dissatisfied Scots are being offered “constitutional jam tomorrow as long as you defeat independence today”.
He said: “At the end of the day Scots have a chance in 2014 to have a Scottish decision which they control over their own destiny. If there is no second question and independence is defeated as I think it will be, they have then to wait on Westminster saying ‘we’ll look at it, but we don’t know what we’ll look at, we don’t know when it will be, and we don’t know how we can deliver it’. And so the logic of a second question not being there, the logic is very debatable.
“That’s why I’m appealing to the unionists who know that they can create an alternative now, they can have it developed by the time it goes to the campaign proper and they can have it developed by the time it goes to the ballot paper. And if they don’t think that then Scots are screaming at them just now to actually change their thinking.”
His comments come ahead of the release of Scotland The Growing Divide next month, McLeish’s latest book on the state of Scottish politics and the looming independence referendum.