Over the course of the last few months the two central objectives of the SNP’s referendum strategy have become increasingly clear. The first is to reassure those (predominantly middle-class) Scots who remain un-persuaded by the case for radical constitutional change that independence will involve little or no disruption to their daily lives. The second, which follows on from the first, is to try to soften the opposition of the British establishment – particularly its business and military components – to the break-up of the UK.
The main theme of the unionist campaign has become equally clear over the same period. Despite frequent token references to the shared historical experiences of ‘the British family’, there is little doubt that Better Together’s chief goal is to intensify the sense of uncertainty felt by many Scots regarding the possible economic consequences of independence. Hence the volley of questions – could Scottish ship yards survive separation? Can you have a monetary union without a political union? How will volatile oil prices affect future Scottish public expenditure? – it lobs at the SNP on an almost daily basis.
The SNP has to deal with these ‘wicked issues’ in a comprehensive fashion. Yet, putting its emphasis on moderation and gradualism to one side, it also has to be prepared to respond to unionist attacks on independence with equally robust attacks on the British political status-quo. Beyond claiming that independence is necessary to protect the NHS and the welfare state in Scotland, the party has been reluctant to do this. But in failing to challenge the contradictions and inadequacies of the Westminster consensus head on, the SNP allows the unionists to avoid having to explain why they think London government is preferable to self-government. It also allows the impression to develop that only the proponents of change have a case to answer when, in fact, Scottish voters have no grounds for assuming the balance of risk favours the Union.
A more aggressive, forth-right campaign would advance a critique of unionism on democratic, social and international grounds. The democratic case against the Union would highlight how resistant the Westminster Parliament, with its unelected upper chamber and antiquated electoral system, is to progressive reform. It would also remind voters that the Commons and the Lords are heavily dominated by a tiny, wealthy, southern elite. The social case would focus on Scotland’s comparatively high rates of poverty, alcohol dependency and ill-health compared to the rest of the UK and challenge the unionist parties, Labour in particular, to account for the squandering of £270bn worth of North Sea oil tax revenues by successive Westminster governments. The international case would go beyond Trident and Iraq and confront the militarism that lies at the heart of British politics. It would ask Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander to justify Britain’s grotesquely inflated defence budget (at 3.4%, the fourth largest of any country in the world as proportion of GDP), and if they really believe the last Labour government’s record on foreign affairs lived up to the standards of liberal internationalism they claim to subscribe to.
‘Going negative’ is often interpreted as a sign of political weakness. But in this instance it is the willingness of the nationalists to embrace the institutions and ideas of the British state which suggests a lack of confidence. Advocates of independence must state firmly what they don’t want, as well as what they do. Last month, Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland, posed the question: “How many Scots would vote to join the Union if Scotland was still independent?” This suggests the emergence of a new and more urgent tone in the official pro-independence campaign. Nonetheless, much more has to be done before Scots are as sceptical of the idea of remaining in the UK as they appear to be about the prospect of leaving it.
Scottish Political Journalist