By Mike Small
The start of the No campaign came after a month-long trail of visceral criticisms of the Yes Scotland launch. With a gushing media presence at the ready, the packed room was led by Alistair Darling.
Enter a giant Panglossian Yes-No game. A world of make-believe in which Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson are political giants, Darling a respected elder statesman, and Annabel Goldie a hilarious raconteur.
Their challenge is a difficult high-wire act. On the one hand the message is: all’s well, there are no problems, Britain is good, Britain is best, it’s like the Olympics and the Jubilee rolled into one, only cheaper. Imagine giant cupcakes and athleticism.
On the other: we live in a world of terrible dangers, don’t move an inch, we live in peril. You’re great you Scots, but it will go all Albanian if you're left alone to manage your own affairs.
As Ewan Crawford wrote, it was like a child’s fantasy: “This was a Scotland where no-one was without a job, where no-one feels any uncertainty, no-one has any concerns over pensions, welfare, health or any of those other nasty things that other people, in other countries have to endure.”
But the most striking aspect was not the fantasy land or the spin – it was the very odd cast we were presented with. Given the media’s inability to ask questions of this gathering let’s try some obvious ones.
Where was Charles Kennedy? He was supposed to be one of the ‘big guns’ rolled out to ‘protect the Union’. Why was Ruth Davidson playing second fiddle to Annabel Goldie? Haven’t they a new leader? Didn’t Annabel lead the Tories to an absolute electoral disaster?
And – why wasn’t Johann Lamont leading the thing? What’s Alistair Darling got to do with anything? And didn’t he lead us during a period where we fell into financial crisis and a botched and failed term in office leading to Labour’s ejection from No 10?
Where was David Cameron? Surely if this was such a grave and terrible position we’d want to hear from our leader, the British PM? No, instead we were treated to the views of Miss Inverness, somewhere in between the rejected glitz and celebrity of the Yes campaign.
Apart from this undermining collection of oddball characters with a proven track record of failure, the No campaign has three real problems on its hands: the Devo Crisis, The Yes-No Game and its core message of Going Nowhere.
The Devo Crisis
The campaign doesn’t appear to have a position on whether Scots should consider an alternative to full independence, various models of greater devolution within the union – Devo Max or Devo Plus, – it seems instead content with David Cameron’s Devo Shsh in which he promises something better in the future but is keeping quiet about what that might be. It’s all top secret.
The “Better Together” campaign won’t be talking about Devo Max. Alastair Darling said on Monday morning because: "The first question surely that we in Scotland have to answer is ‘do we want to stay in the UK or do we want to leave?'"
This is fine but it may well have the unexpected consequence of driving wavering pro-extra power Scots into the hands of the Yes campaign. Presented with a binary choice it’s a big gamble from the No brigade. This is the real Bear Pit.
Fact is: People really hate the Tories.
The Yes – No Game
As Hamish over at Caledonian Mercury wrote: "One shipyard worker used in the short campaign film the organisers have put together let slip that he would be 'voting No for Scotland’s future' which not only sounded a little confused but showed that, for many Scots, the Better Together campaign would have a damned sight more traction if it was simply called the 'No' campaign."
The No campaign's desperate efforts not to be No leads them into some very strange language and slogan areas. “Vote No for a Better Future!” Less “Yes We Can!” than “Maybe we shouldnae” or “No to Yes in Case We’re Not Up to It!” It’s all very undermining, downbeat and betrays an absolute crisis of confidence at the very heart of everything the Unionists say. Combined with a deeply unpopular London government agenda it’s going to be very hard for this to hold.
The Road to Nowhere
Britain’s not broken in the way the Tories spin it to justify their Victorian punishment of the poor. But if we are to be convinced that there’s something worth being part of – something worth being ‘together’ with – there’s some crucial issues needing answered.
Why is it better to be tied to a state that’s been involved in not just illegal wars but secret rendition, and torture, and is now suggesting ways to create secret courts to cover it up? That’s something to move away from. Never mind the ‘positive case for the union’ – just justify that association? This isn’t about an aberration this is about the hardwire of how British foreign policy works. Alistair, Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson need to explain what’s good about that.
In defence policy, Labour now seem committed to opposing the removal of Trident because they are in favour of its removal. It’s one of the most peculiar policy stances ever stated, yet it remains unchallenged by a pliant media. I’ve read nothing from Severin Carrell, Eddie Barnes, Paul Hutcheon, Angus Macleod or any senior editors or correspondents on this extraordinary policy.
It’s a weapons system Gordon Brown once described as “unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful, and militarily unsound.” It’s a weapons system many, many Labour supporters have deeply held views about and will be pivotal in the coming years as Labour try and hold their core voters to a No campaign.
How are we to understand the gap in the political culture between Scotland and England? It’s not universal and it’s not absolute, but it exists.
If, as Alistair Darling insists, we are not to go “on a journey with an uncertain destination” (what better journey can one imagine?), where are we going? Where are we being taken?
The inescapable conclusion is that we are going nowhere. The whiff of entitlement is only overpowered by the reek of stagnation and inertia. But it would be very wrong to assume that if the Unionist Bloc presents as stability, security and conservatism it means ‘no change’. Not at all.
Michael Gove has promised a supply-side revolution for English schools – and that is exactly what he is delivering, with barely a squeak of national political protest.
Most attention has focused on the few “free schools” set up by parents or sponsors with public money and private-sector management. But on a much larger scale, schools in England are being bribed into becoming free ‘academies’ outside local control, many sponsored or run by private companies.
On the NHS we learnt only yesterday that one NHS hospital trust is on course to be placed in a form of special measures called “unsustainable providers regime” after accumulating a deficit of £150m dating back to what the government has described as an “unaffordable” private finance initiative signed under Labour. It’s gone bust, been crippled because of PFI.
This is the scheme routinely and religiously favoured by Scottish Labour activist @dhothersall Duncan Hotherrsall on Twitter. #YesScot may have its challenges with its own activists breaking out into the wider public – it does – but if CyberBrits and Better Together activists are going to be campaigning on Trident and PFI, then the giant hubris being displayed by the likes of Severin Carrell (such as this) who claims the SNP are about to abandon independence – and Ian Smart who claims the referendum will never happen – are well overdue.
Last year a group of lawyers and health academics spelled out in the Lancet medical journal, that if the health and social care bill is passed in its amended form it will abolish England’s model of “tax-financed, universal healthcare”, pave the way for a “US-style health system” based on “mixed funding” and fatally undermine “entitlement to equality of healthcare provision”.
This lurch towards market-driven private provision at a cost of £3bn is already causing massive problems with the government’s parallel attempt to drive through the deepest cuts in the history of the NHS.
The Liberal-Conservative coalition that is bringing these changes forward have no material base in Scotland. They have been eviscerated. Yet they sit in Napier with fixed smug grins with a message of “No change”. Post-Blair we were handed Brown’s Britain, patented slogan: “Better yesterday”. Today we are handed a bizarre message of better together – together with a political class and set of institutions which have been repeatedly rejected.
Darling claims that: “The truth is we can have the best of both worlds — a strong Scottish Parliament and a key role in a strong and secure United Kingdom.”
But what is this key role? The assorted panelists tell us nothing of this. While every detail is demanded of the Yes campaign trailing forwards for imagined scenarios hundreds of years into the future, there is no detail on what relations Scotland the UK might have if independence is set aside.
Unionists will argue that devolution – of whatever variety – allows for distinct paths. While we might have Goveite ‘reform’ of schools in England you can have Euro-chic education a la Mike Russell here. While Andrew Lansley might be smashing the NHS in England, Labour will hold hands with the Tories in a campaign to keep the state of ship afloat.
The message lacks credibility or integrity. If we share these great common values then why does our UK government seem to be wrecking the very institutions that would seem to hold us together better than a well crafted speech or chortling along with Miss Inverness?
And why do those reforms seem to have clear continuity from New Labour’s agenda of privatisation?
It’s impossible to pretend that this is one happy family, and only so much media distortion will paint over the cracks.
A poll this week showed almost four times as many people trust Alex Salmond’s administration to act in Scotland’s best interests than trust Cameron’s UK Government to do so.
Trust in the Scottish Government has increased while at the same time, the number of people who said they trusted the UK Government to act in Scotland’s best interests was 18% – compared to 35% in 2007. This isn’t a united country, it’s one that is splitting apart down ideological lines.