Unionist cause in Scotland should fight from a position of strength

Grasping defeat?

The Unionist cause in Scotland fighting an independence referendum campaign should be doing so from a position of inherent strength.  Support for the Union has consistently outpolled support for independence.  In more recent years any spikes in the support for independence have been just that, unsustained for any significant period of time.  Also the natural conservatism of voters about change is on Unionism’s side.

So that’s that then we can all go home?

Regrettably, no.  These two factors appear to be their problem.

The firmness of support has led to a degree of complacency.  It has contributed to an intellectual laziness among the advocates for the Union. The benefits and strengths of the Union are too often seen as sufficiently self-evident that they often remain unarticulated and there is an over-reliance on shillings and pence as the show-stopper.  This then leads to far too much reliance on scare stories.  The Unionist contribution to the debate so far in Scotland is at serious risk of making the SNP look like the good guys.

This combination of complacency and negativity means the Unionist cause has not developed a positive narrative.  This means that in the battle to connect with the emotions of the voters it simply isn’t on the field.  It could be possible to win without this but Unionism in Scotland would not be served well in the medium or long-term by a ‘dirty’ or ‘negative’ win.  A ‘clean’ or ‘positive’ win is better at containing the separatist forces for longer.  This is important as Salmond has created a second tier in his party more than capable of succeeding him.  The past assumption of Salmond goes and the threat would disappear is no longer true.

Negativity does have a role in any campaign but has to be credible and based on a positive platform not what you offer voters for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In the past the Unionist case could have been assured of a financial advantage but £2m of donations to the SNP have reduced this.  Also the SNP has perfected maximising impact for spend as its masterful use of cheap database software and social media in the last Scottish election shows.

So what are the Unionism’s weaknesses?

The most fundamental weakness is the dire state of the Scottish Unionist parties, in particular Scottish Labour.  The reasons for this will not be explored here other than to say they have no narrative, weak leadership and creaking organisations.  Salmond has been blessed by his opposition.  This is why the national leaderships have had to step in. However, this doesn’t solve the problem as ‘London’ stepping in can create as many new issues.

Beyond the opportunity to play a nationalistic card around their involvement the fact is that none of the national leaders have strong personal brands (either in Scotland or across the UK) and if the last election is anything to go by they aren’t very good at campaigns either.  The Conservatives had everything going for them and couldn’t get to a majority, Labour produced a negative and confused campaign and the Liberal Democrats got lucky with the debates but couldn’t transform that into electoral growth. On a local note the ill-fated UCUNF is a warning of how badly things can go wrong when a campaign is riven by local v national tensions.

This means a new untainted Unionist campaigning organisation is essential. The Scottish Unionist political parties should have a role in its establishment but they cannot be allowed to be the dominant presence.  The Unionist case needs a Scottish and non-party political voice that will sell a positive narrative.  It should also realise that this will not be a media won campaign but on the doorsteps so they will have to develop a significant ground operation.

The political class will have to get Alex Salmond out of their collective heads.  An obsession with Salmond leads to an emphasis on counter-strategy rather than a strategy, too negative a message and more likely to bolster Salmond’s popularity than harm it.

What role should other Unionists elsewhere play in the campaign?

Unionists from elsewhere in the UK can help with finance, expertise and personnel.  However, it should allow the Scottish Unionist campaign to decide on what role they directly play in there.  What is needed in the other parts of the United Kingdom is a complementary campaign to a positive Scottish Unionist narrative.  The Scottish campaign sells the benefits of the Union our role should be to make it clear Scotland is wanted.

Lee Reynolds is a DUP Councillor and the party’s Director of Strategy.  The views expressed are his own. His occasional blog is at http://ultonia.blogspot.com/

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  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    Unionist arguments centre around the negative. Scotland is too small, economically dependent, lacks the expertise and will cost too much etc. This argument will only lead to defeat. It is negative and patronising and does not address the emotional aspect of nationalism

    When they do stray into the positive, it centres around punching above their weight on the world stage as part of Britail. UN vetos and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean little to voters in Scotland. The other aspect is the historical legacy of the empire, which is irrelevant to young scots

    I was thinking about what is positive about Britain now. The Olympics came to mind, but that is draining lottery resources from the periphery with little benefit.

    Give me something else to consider.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    spot on points from the bloke who pulled the rug out from garden centre unionism.

    The likes of John Taylor’s intervention was more harmful than beneficial- if even noticed. The best thing unionists from this side of the sheuch can do is provide a bit of financial or personnel help, and contribute to an overall narrative of why Scotland helps make Britishness, and how much that nation is valued within the union politically, culturally, socially. In other words Britishness is not foisted from the Home Counties and the Tory shires. Rather than showing how Scotland needs ‘England’, it might be better to show how Scotland benefits and shapes the UK to the mutual advantage of both. And that means thinking about the undersold benefits in the here and now not just moist eyed reminiscence about history, wars and the royal family.

    But we should be low profile, cos we are tainted by ‘orangeness’ and our oddball politics which is further removed from the GB party system than any other part of the UK. Also unionists in NI are of course rightly sceptical of geographical islands being political entities, so in some sense we could be vulerable to snp charges of doublethink; so Kilclooney needs to think on if he wants to go on about partitioning scotland- not unless he wants to wave bye bye to south down.

  • HeinzGuderian

    The ‘double think’ works both ways though.Whatever happened to the ‘one island economy’,much loved of shinners and their cheerleaders ?
    Unionists when it comes to uniting this island. Nationalists when it comes to Scotland ?

    Alex may be Hellbent on turning Scotland into yet another Euro basket case. The people of Scotland aren’t !

  • JPJ2

    “Alex may be Hellbent on turning Scotland into yet another Euro basket case.”

    Ah, Lee Reynolds, as an SNP member I found your article much more sensible than most unionist (Scottish style) commentaries-but look at what you are up against in trying to run a positive campaign 🙂

  • TwilightoftheProds

    JPJ2- Not often we get SNP in the spotlight: couple of questions –

    what does the snp do after gaining independence (maybe)? Break into component parts, or remain left of centre populist catch all party?

    what makes you feel un- British? In other words – Whats a turn off about Britishness?

  • JPJ2


    On the first point I see no reason to expect the SNP to split in the short term.
    They are much more now that just a vehicle for achieving independence, and if that is achieved, part of the reason for that would be lack of belief in their opponents.

    Over time, a number of new parties/alignments would develop e,g. I assume Murdo Fraser would get to take over a separate genuinely Scottish Tory Party (renamed?)
    At the moment the unusable best attack by the unionists is “we are useless, don’t take the risk that some day we might be in charge of and independent Scotland” 🙂

    The turn off re Britishness is that it is no longer (the extent to which it ever was is a matter of genuine dispute) in the interests of Scotland. Scots recognise that Britain is no longer a world power, whereas England/Britain has found it difficult to accept that, and wastes enormous amounts of money on dubious foreign adventures and Trident.

    I was happy enough to accept the term “British” until saying you are British came to be accepted as meaning you were in favour of the union. So until Scotland is independent I will not accept that description, after that I would accept it rather as I assume Norwegians accept Scandinavian.

  • TwilightoftheProds


    Cheers for that. Food for thought.

  • Rationalist

    Scotland is not a colony, it’s a member of the UK, just like England. And England has exactly the same right to leave as Scotland. So let’s forget about what the Scots want, and think instead about what the English want.

    If the Scots are entitled to a referendum on leaving the UK, so are the English. It is absurd to suggest that the English vote on whether the Scots should leave.

    It would be astute for many reasons for the UK Government to carry out a referendum now among the English on leaving the UK, and allow the Scots to run their referendum on exactly the same question whenever they like.

    The English referendum could also ask if they agree to unity with Wales, if the Welsh agree to it, and a simultaneous referendum in Wales could ask if they want unity with England, if the English want it.

    At present the debate is all about what the Scots may or may not want. It’s high time that the English were consulted about what they want England to do, not what they want Scotland to do. The political chattering classes in Westminster seem to have missed this essential point, as has Alec Salmond, but the rest of us have not.