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The hand of history

The hand of history

There was a moment, watching the Saltire being hastily raised above Downing Street, that seemed to sum up the UK Government’s reaction to closing polls. The flag had been flown in an effort to show Scotland it was valued. The flag fell down.

The British establishment, perhaps for the first time during the referendum campaign, has become truly terrified about the prospect of Scotland voting to leave the Union. And with so little time left before the vote it seems that the whole London political establishment – its politicians, journalists and even artists – are now encamped north of the border.

The old adage ‘treat em mean, keep em keen’ seems about right, at least in constitutional terms. Westminster has never been so interested in Scotland. The tipping point came with the publication of a recent YouGov poll finding Yes in the lead after a huge swing.

The political reaction was scrambled, with David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg agreeing to skip Prime Minister’s Questions and head north.

Releasing the findings – which showed Yes at 51 per cent – YouGov President Peter Kellner wrote: “The fact that the contest is too close to call is itself remarkable, as Better Together seemed to have victory in the bag. Month after month, they held a steady lead, averaging No 58 per cent, Yes 42 per cent. In the past four weeks support for the Union has drained away at an astonishing rate. The Yes campaign has not just invaded No territory; it has launched a blitzkrieg.”

The reality of the situation appears to have hit home in Westminster, though some would question why it took so long.

As former PM John Major put it on the Today programme: “I am desperately concerned at what is happening. We would be immensely weaker as a nation in every respect – morally, politically, in every material aspect – if Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom were to part company.”

Maybe Westminster could be forgiven, certainly following the first televised debate it would have been hard to imagine reaching this point. Just a month ago, things had been going so well.
The way the debate was billed, a draw for Better Together would be a big win. Seen as lacking charisma, the former Chancellor’s strategy had been framed as an attempt to ‘bore for Britain’.

Conversely, fireworks were expected from Salmond, especially given that it was the Yes camp that had been seen to lead demands for it to happen in the first place (though of course it always wanted the opponent to be Cameron).

The debate was a bad tempered affair – with Darling repeatedly demanding answers from Salmond on currency. He drew applause – and surprise – by going on the attack.

The former Chancellor told Salmond: “Contemplate for just one minute that you might be wrong. What is plan B? If you don’t get a currency union, what are we going to have instead? We need to know.”

He continued: “Any eight-year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the capital of a country and its currency. I presume the flag is the Saltire, I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can’t tell us what currency we will have. What is an eight-year-old going to make of that?”

The First Minister was left to insist that a shared pound would be in the interest of the remaining UK as much as Scotland, but he did not convince.

Clearly in writing off Darling, commentators had done him an injustice. Salmond was by no means terrible but Better Together had been able to seize the impetus, managing expectations and drawing Yes into the trap of allowing the unionists to downplay Darling’s chances.

Better Together had been keen to target Salmond due to a belief that his personality is a turn-off for voters, and the debate seemed to highlight why Salmond has kept a relatively low profile during the campaign.

Up until that point, Yes had been effective as a movement due to its diversity – allowing the campaign to dodge criticisms of the SNP – and many Yes supporters would have been furious that Salmond was able to present the currency options in the White Paper as if they were on behalf of Yes at all.

Salmond defended his stance following further attacks on his position by Johann Lamont and the other leaders at FMQs.

“The reason why we are keeping the pound in a currency union and why we are so unambiguous about that is that we are appealing to the greatest authority of all – the sovereign will of the people of Scotland.

“It is Scotland’s pound. It does not belong to George Osborne. It does not belong to Ed Balls. It is Scotland’s pound, and we are keeping it.”

Yet with Yes campaigners including Patrick Harvie, Jim Sillars, Colin Fox and even the chair of the Yes campaign Dennis Canavan opposed to a currency union, many questioned why Salmond did not simply answer that a shared pound was his preference, but that the matter was one for Scots to decide.

But if Salmond’s showing seemed to burst the Yes bubble, the effect was temporary, with the second debate an altogether different affair. 

Salmond was more convincing, running through the options on currency while sticking to the basic line behind the whole Yes campaign: “The decisions affecting Scotland are best made by those who live and work here.”

And while in the previous debate he had been criticised for wasting time mocking Better Together scare stories – ranging from Andy Burnham telling Holyrood that cars would drive on the right in an independent Scotland to claims that independence would make the country more susceptible to attacks from outer space – Salmond focused on the issues that had brought the Yes campaign so far.

Darling struggled as the FM repeatedly demanded an example of new job-creating powers in the  devolution package that Better Together had promised. Salmond came out looking the clear winner and the polls reacted accordingly. The Yes grassroots campaign rolled on and the polls continued to narrow. And it was around this point, in the last few weeks, that Better Together began to show the first signs of being truly rattled.

Next came new campaign material from both sides, with the No camp ridiculed for its effort, entitled ‘The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind’. The film was aimed at appealing to women – a group Yes has generally struggled to win over – and featured a mother raising her concerns over independence before deciding to vote No.

Sitting alone in her kitchen, she says: “My Paul is worse than the telly these days. He will not leave off about the referendum. He started again first thing this morning, ‘have you made a decision yet?’ I was like, ‘It’s too early to be discussing politics, eat your cereal’. So, he starts to ask the kids. I mean, honestly! Like he’ll get any sense out of them. I mean they never have their heads out their phones.”

Social media users piled in to satirise the message, with critics accusing Better Together of being condescending towards women.

One seasoned US political campaigning expert, Robert Moran, a partner at Brunswick Group, said he thought the ad risked being patronising. He said: “I wouldn’t run an ad with that tone in the US. It felt a bit like she was the nervous ‘little lady’ that just couldn’t decide.”

Jason Boxt, Managing Director of The Glover Park Group, echoed Moran’s comments. He told Holyrood the move had parallels with the Quebec referendum, when a nationalist minister labelled female No supporters as ‘Yvettes’ – slang for a docile schoolgirl from a school textbook.

In that case the move backfired, with leading women resentful at being called obedient organising a string of rallies – under the name ‘the Yvettes’ – and helping to win the vote for No.
By this point events seemed to speed up and it was perhaps inevitable that the frenzy of debate would spill over in some way.

In fact one incident – Jim Murphy getting hit by an egg during his tour of Scotland – seemed to offer a window into just how frenetic the campaign had become. Murphy had spent months touring Scotland as part of his ‘100 streets in 100 days tour’ – putting the case for the Union to towns across the country from atop an Irn Bru crate.

After regular heckling and abuse from independence campaigners, the shadow defence secretary announced he was suspending his tour pending police advice, after being hit by an egg.
Following the incident, he released a video documenting examples of being accused of things ranging from being a ‘terrorist’ to a ‘quisling’.

Murphy said: “I don’t mind heckles and, d’you know what, I don’t even mind people throwing eggs –that’s just a dry cleaning bill.

“But what happened after the first televised debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond is that things took a sinister turn.

“Instead of turning up in crowds of people on all sides there was an organised mob of Yes supporters, facilitated through Yes Scotland and local organisations through websites, Facebook and other social media.”

Unionists saw the incident as indicative of a wider intolerance and aggression in the pro-independence movement, while Yes supporters accused Murphy of milking an incident that occurs during most election campaigns, let alone independence referendums, in an effort to smear them.

Up until that point, the debate had seemed to move in cycles – speeding up as a new issue came to light or an expert or a celebrity intervened. But as the vote moves closer and the polls tighten, it has now seemingly reached a constant rolling boil.

The news that Yes had taken the lead – at least in one poll – fits the narrative that many involved in the day-to-day debate had felt shaping for some time. Momentum seemed to be building for Yes, while Better Together’s efforts have often appeared prone to backfire.

Gordon Brown has stepped into the debate multiple times – dubbed Brownhog Day – with the former PM recently setting out a timetable for more powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

Critics questioned what power Brown, as a backbench opposition MP, has to instigate further devolution. But the rest of his party, along with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, quickly moved to back him – at least in confirming that more power would be transferred.

Better Together is a campaign that has been at times uneasy in its own skin – an obvious consequence of Labour and the Conservatives’ traditional positions. But in the face of rising support for Yes, the campaign tried to amplify the message that, while it cannot offer a definitive package for further devolution, a No vote is not a vote for no change.

The Yes campaign has meanwhile sought to highlight and exacerbate tensions in this unlikely coalition.

The NHS in particular has been used by Yes as a crowbar to break Better Together apart, with the pro-independence camp arguing that privatisation in England will eventually lead to cuts in Scotland.

And the Conservative Party’s free market reforms in public services across England and Wales have certainly, at least at times, left Labour appearing hamstrung in its ability to counter the SNP’s social democratic thrusts.

There seems to have been an acknowledgement throughout the campaign that David Cameron and the Conservatives are not the force to win the argument in modern Scotland, which is why it was Darling, and not the PM, who debated Salmond.

As the days until the vote fall away and polls remain on a knife edge, it is unlikely that this approach will change. In fact if anything it seems likely that it will be Labour which is thrust further to the front of Better Together.

Speaking in Cumbernauld after racing up to Scotland, Ed Miliband said: “Scotland’s values of fairness, justice and equality have shone through in this referendum campaign. But to meet those values I know we have to change our country. Together we can do that. Not by irreversibly breaking apart, with all the risks that means. But by building a different future.”

Obviously keen to steer clear of leaving himself open to accusations of ‘scare-mongering’ Miliband attempted to construct a more positive message. He said his argument came from the “head, heart and soul”.

“Head: because I believe we can better create a more equal, a more socially just society together than we can alone. Heart: because of the ties that bind us together and would be irreversibly broken by separation. And soul: because it is solidarity that built the great institutions like our National Health Service and can tackle the great injustices of our time.”

At some point over the last two years the Yes camp managed to take ownership of social justice and from Nicola Sturgeon hammering Alistair Carmichael on it, nearly a year ago, until now it has served them well.

Better Together’s late response is to challenge that ground, particularly by highlighting plans to cut corporation tax in the White Paper. Even David Cameron used the word ‘solidarity’ during his trip to Edinburgh.

The new Better Together TV advert reflects this change in tact, emphasising the history of social justice through the union movement across the UK. And in fact the Conservatives are conspicuous by their absence, though if that means saving the union the party will likely be able to live with it.

The danger for the Better Together campaign though is the effect that forces operating in Scotland but outside of its control, such as Ukip and the Orange Order, will have on support for independence.

After all if the Conservatives have held the campaign back – though they have gone further than Labour in their devolution package – what effect will Farage and his gang have?

Mounting euro scepticism – highlighted by Tory MP Douglas Carswell’s recent defection to Ukip – did the unionists few favours and the prospect of Britain leaving the EU could be enough to push some progressive No supporters to a Yes.

But it will not just be unionists with last minute nerves. As Better Together try and build a more positive case for the union in the closing days – something more like Danny Boyle’s celebration of the UK at the London Olympics in 2012 – Yes will be privately concerned over whether it can get Yes voters to turn out in the numbers it needs or if anxieties about currencies continue to spook.

No one is sure exactly what the turnout will be and this could have serious implications on the result.

Faced with the biggest political decision Scotland has ever had to make, both sides are painfully aware of its significance. Just as the outcome will mark Scotland, there is a part of this debate that will stay with those that witnessed it. There are two different futures trying to pull Scotland in two different directions, and with the vote now looming, it is impossible to say which way the nation will go.

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