What’s our problem with an independent Scotland? This is the simplest and most overlooked question facing the UK’s political leaders as they try to convince the Caledonian electorate to remain within the UK ahead of 2014’s referendum on independence.
All three party leaders have tried in recent days to up their game, making a case either for the perils of separation or the benefits of the status quo. Last month David Cameron warned that independence would have profound effects on Scotland’s relationship with the EU and NATO, saying it would be “deeply, deeply sad” to see Scotland leave the UK.
Speaking at Labour’s Scottish conference last week Ed Miliband accused Alex Salmond of having no “industrial policy” because “they [the SNP] don’t have a single-minded focus on how to create an economy that works for working people; they’re too busy trying to change our borders.”
Meanwhile Nick Clegg promises further devolution of powers and a “green economic renaissance” for Scotland, whatever that means.
All three UK political leaders are now focused on the task, but are they getting anywhere? Many Scots, it is fair to say, remain unmoved by the entreaties of London-based politicians. Opinion polls routinely show around 40 per cent of them want independence against slightly more who wish to stay inside the British state. The rest are undecided.
Unfortunately, the challenge of averting the siren call of independence rests, disproportionately, on Labour’s shoulders. Given there are famously more pandas than Conservative MPs in Scotland and with the Lib Dems sullied amid the compromises of office, this is Labour’s show.
Yet our arguments against “the nats” have always seemed simplistic to the point of bone-headed. It lacks conviction when we attack them as “Tartan Tories” as they go about providing free care for the elderly and a free university education. The SNP are recognisably social democratic: pro-European and non-chauvinistic.
Labour’s new Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, seems a tough operator and the party certainly needs that; but it also needs a first-rate strategist too. Calling Salmond a “conman” and “deluded”, as she did last Saturday during Labour’s Scottish conference, is all good knockabout, but it fails to make a single compelling argument for the union.
The MP and former minister Tom Harris, who also stood for the Scottish Labour leadership last year, did so because none of his more senior countrymen in Westminster were willing to do so. With such a noticeable reluctance from senior Scots to want to lead their own country, should we really be surprised if the electorate takes that to mean the parliament and executive are second best?
Fortunately, the SNP surge in recent years has two critical weaknesses.
The first is that the SNP is neither a proper political party nor a broadly-based movement: it’s an Alex Salmond personality cult. With some justification, it has to be said. Tough, clever, unflappable and lucky; he is a class act. His open face and easy manner personifies an optimistic, confident future for Scotland. He is hard to best and without him the SNP would be nowhere.
But he is only one man. If Salmond falters, the SNP falters too – and so does the argument for Scottish nationalism. The question for unionists in all three parties is whether they are up to the task of breaking his serve. Salmond on the backfoot would be a sight to savour.
The SNP’s second weakness is cyclical. It benefitted from being a non-Tory, social democratic alternative during Labour’s years in power. (The same thing happened in the 1970s with their last great surge). Fundamentally, though, it remains a protest party. The compromises of office left Labour electorally vulnerable and the SNP gleefully filled the gap.
But by 2014 Labour will have clawed back the powerful advantage of being the party best placed to end Tory rule. Meanwhile the SNP’s support is likely to have deflated through its own failures and compromises in office.
Alex Salmond has one shot at achieving independence. A tsunami of impossible questions about the practical implications of national divorce threatens to overwhelm his political appeal. Yet it still requires compelling voices to ask those questions.
A combination of Westminster politicians warning about the apocalyptic consequences of independence combined with the insular tribalism of everyday Scottish politics conspires to blunt that attack. We will have to do better than shroud-waving and casual abuse.
The best place to start is at the beginning; restating that essential question: what is our problem with an independent Scotland?
Well, what is it?