By John McTernan
The most important three words in any campaign are not ‘Vote For Me’, but ‘Hold Your Nerve’. The independence campaign has reached what Sir Alex Ferguson used to call ‘squeaky-bum time’.
The polls are closing – we are told. The No campaign needs to be positive – opine commentators. Scotland is so different, so progressive – pant assorted lefties breathlessly. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Now is the time for the campaign against separation to hold its nerve. All successful campaigns are based on the right political strategy, that in turn requires a clear-sighted analysis of the fundamentals. On this basis the No campaign have reason to be confident.
First, there has never been a time when support for independence has been a majority proposition in Scotland. Ben Page of IpsosMORI has a fascinating chart showing opinion on the question across 30 years – the Yes and No lines flat-line. There has always been a solid 60/40 rejection of separation. The ‘momentum’ for independence is simply the turbulence of the margin of error in polling.
Second, Scotland is not politically different from the rest of the UK. Voters strongly support both a welfare cap and an immigration cap. Like the rest of the UK they reject unilateral disarmament. Scotland is not a Scandinavian style social democratic country. But then neither are Norway, Sweden or Finland – currently all with right wing parties in government.
For this reason, the third point to make is that the SNP have made a quixotic choice to try to win the referendum campaign from the left. They look at the undecided voters and see that they are D/E Labour voters. They reason the only way to win them over is to be more Labour than Scottish Labour can be. They conclude that the way to do that is to out-left Labour. Renationalise Royal Mail. Increase benefits. Bring in a million migrants. Bold policies – that is in the Sir Humphrey meaning of the word. There is no electorally successful space to the left of the Labour Party in Scottish or British politics. That is the abiding lesson of Bennism. Working class voters are no hankering for sentimental leftism.
Fourthly, there is a pretty good defence of Britishness out there in the referendum campaign. Ironically it’s being made by Alex Salmond. He wants an independent Scotland to keep the pound and the Bank of England. To preserve the monarchy, the BBC and the NHS. Even to keep the non-nuclear defence bases and contracts. Can anyone imagine Edinburgh’s own James Connolly making a similar case for an independent Ireland? Of course not. Salmond understand that the UK, its values and the institutions that encode those values, is incredibly popular in Scotland.
Finally, to paraphrase Clinton’s campaign chief James Carville, ‘It’s the No campaign, stupid’. Of course it’s going to be negative. Faced with an opponent who says six fantastic things before breakfast, what would you do. You have to beat an untruth to death. It’s not pretty, but it is effective in the long run. You have to trust the people – Scots are canny folk and they know that something that seems too good to be true is just that. Or as they say in Glasgow – our heads don’t button up the back.
In the end, it comes down to the fact that who we are, what Scotland is, comes from a shared history and a shared endeavour. In 1968 Her Majesty’s Historiographer of Scotland J.D. Mackie wrote:
underlying the whole situation are the facts of inter-marriage, the development of great common services, the amalgamation of business firms with the mutual exchange of populations and, above all, a long common experience in peace and war and imperial enterprise have integrated the two countries [Scotland and England] very closely.
He could have written that in 1868, and a version of that will be written in 2068.
John McTernan served as political secretary to Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and as Director of Communications to Former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard