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/.