How not to win votes in Scotland.
Begin your conference keynote address with a lengthy reference to Scotland's greatest military defeat - Flodden - after having compared the Scottish National Party with the UK Independence Party. The Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, had an opportunity to get the Liberal Democrats out of the political doghouse at their conference in Glasgow yesterday. Perhaps they've decided to live in it.
It doesn't matter what you think about Alex Salmond and independence, no-one in Scotland who heard the FM set out his case in Holyrood yesterday could mistake the multicultural civic nationalism of the SNP to the right-wing narrow nationalism of Ukip. Nigel Farage wants to halt immigration, leave Europe, slash welfare. Alex Salmond supports open borders, membership of the EU and opposition to the bedroom tax. Michael Moore knows this perfectly well but he was clearly talking to his UK party and not very subtly appealing to their prejudices.
The Scottish Secretary also repeated his line that last year's Scotland Act represents the "greatest transfer of economic power to Scotland since the Act of Union". Really? Mr Moore obviously isn't familiar with the work of his predecessor, the wartime Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston. He practically invented regional policy with his Scottish Council for Industy, creating 100,000 industrial jobs, the Forestry Commission, the Hydro Electric Board - and even set up a primordial national health service in his spare time. A dodgy deal on shared income tax doesn't come close.
A few hours later, Alex Salmond opened his address by quoting Donald Dewar and praising the achievements of the Scottish parliament. "Scotland is on a journey," he said, urging all sides in the independence debate to commit to "empathy not enmity". This was more like it. OK - praising devolution might seem a funny way to make the case for independence. But as we know, the First Minister realises he is addressing a sceptical Scotland. So he has stolen some of the unionists' best lines, making independence sound like the next stage of devolution.
The FM's speech yesterday was intended to convey continuity with the tradition of constructive and consensual home rule, stretching back through Dewar to Tom Johnston, even though the "King of Scotland", as Churchill called him, had no time for the nationalists of his day. But Salmond was right to try at least to convey a sense of purpose, history and impress on all sides the importance of "who we are is how we carry ourselves".
The conduct of this next year will be almost as important as the outcome. If the debate degenerates into squabbling and name-calling and acrimony - whatever the result - Scotland could be set back for decades, and the achievements of 15 years of devolution - generously cited by Alex Salmond yesterday - could evaporate, leaving Scotland a grumpy, provincial backwater.
All good stuff - but it seems to me that this is the kind of thing that the unionists should be saying, not the SNP. It is surely in their collective interest to emphasise continuity, process, dignity and concern for the future. Individually, the leaders of all the unionist parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat - have said that the progress of Scottish home rule will not end with a No vote. But they've yet to give any assurances that it will not. Nothing concrete, nothing specific. Given the fact that the majority of Scots repeatedly tell opinion polls that they want an enhanced parliament with tax-raising powers, why don't the unionists just get together and deliver devolution max? Surely, that is the way for Better Together to win a referendum landslide.
But this is not what is happening. In his one-year-to-go message on BBC Radio, the chairman of Better Together, Alistair Darling, said that "of course" devolution would not stop. But it was, he said, for the parties "in their manifestos" in the next UK General Elections to say what they think is the best future. Now, we all know what that means: precisely nothing, because the parties will all say different things. It is the same argument that Margaret Thatcher used in the 1980s to explain why she had not honoured Lord Home's promise of a "better devolution" if Scots voted No in 1979. She said she did not intend to honour it because there was " no consensus" on the way forward.
The Liberal Democrats are supposedly federalists who want a root-and-branch reform of the UK constitution, with state parliaments and a new federal level of government. The Labour Party is facing both ways, with the party in Holyrood apparently prepared to countenance further devolution, while a number of Labour MPs in Westminster still hanker after powers repatriated to Westminster. The Scottish Tories say they want more powers, without a great deal of conviction, while their counterparts in Westminster want to reduce or eliminate Scottish influence in the House of Commons and end the Barnett Formula. There is no obvious common ground there, which is precisely why there needs to be machinery set up to forge a new consensus, to come up with the kind of concrete proposal that would persuade the Scottish voters.
I'm not saying this won't happen. It is possible that the unionist parties will set up some kind of constitutional convention or cross-party machinery and come up with a workable proposal for devolution max. But I don't see much sign of it. Indeed, now that Salmond has laid claim - somewhat cheekily - to the legacy of devolution, it is going to be quite difficult for the unionist parties to steal it back.
One reason the unionists don't want to promise devolution max is that they fear it might be another get-out clause for Alex Salmond. Then, even if he loses in September 2014, the SNP leader will still be able to claim credit for moving the next stage of home rule that much closer. It would be a little like having a defacto second question on the ballot paper. We know that the SNP's minds are fixed, not just on the referendum, but on retaining power in the 2016 Scottish elections. So, increasingly, are the unionists.
I don't think the unionist parties are inclined to give him that chance. They want Salmond to be crushed, as was the independence case in the Aberdeenshire schools referendum result yesterday. They want an electoral version of the Flodden defeat, complete with the king dead and his troops slaughtered all across the field. That was the subliminal message yesterday from the Scottish Secretary at least. Prepare for annihilation. Scorched earth. You have been warned.
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