• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The battle for Scotland: part two – When Two Tribes Go To War

IT'S not just Alex Salmond who gets cocky.

At the end of a week which saw the debate over Scottish independence achieve national lift-off, the Unionist camp is decidedly chipper too. "Job done, I think," beamed one of those at the heart of the UK machine as he reflected on the extraordinary events of the last seven days.

After months of inactivity and getting beaten up by Salmond, the Unionist camp are in high spirts. And it is a camp now.

The Coalition actually received its legal advice on the referendum before Christmas. But ministers sat on it while there were talks with Labour about letting rip in the New Year.

"There were political discussions," said a Whitehall source. "That would not be unusual on something like this."

So were the Unionists playing possum, letting the SNP think they were asleep at the wheel? "There's certainly lots going on," said the source. "It's been more tightly controlled than it's been in the past."

Not that the Unionists are wholly united, of course. There are differences over campaign tactics, for example, and ample opportunity for mistrust and breakdowns in communication – Labour tribalism runs deep, and working with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is anathema to many.

Labour's Jim Murphy – who has said he won't share a pro-Union platform with David Cameron – couldn't resist another dig yesterday, saying the Prime Minister had "mishandled" the start of the campaign.

There are policy gulfs, too. The LibDems want full tax powers for Scotland (but not via a referendum), the Tories think devolution has climaxed, and Labour are in between.

Alex Salmond will try to exploit the tensions to set his opponents at each other's throats.

But while there is much that divides them, there is also much that brings the Unionists together. For instance, their common enemy: Salmond himself.

Since his majority win in the Holyrood election he has been rubbing his opponents' noses in their defeat day-in day-out and they want revenge. Now they have a taste for hunting as a pack.

Meanwhile, splits are showing in the SNP. As the Sunday Herald reveals today, the majority of the party's MSPs and ministers want a single yes/no question on independence, and nothing to do with Salmond's idea for a second question on so-called devolution max, which they see as a distraction from their core aim.

Only the First Minister's addiction to political manoeuvring is keeping this idea alive, they believe. So where does the issue go from here?

One big lesson from the election is that Salmond is deadly in a presidential-style contest – Iain Gray's political corpse testifies to that.

So the current thinking in the No camp is not to put one person up against Salmond. Instead, a fluid gallery of familiar faces – most of them politicians, but some not – could talk about the pros of the Union and the cons of separation.

This would give a broad variety of personnel from Holyrood and Westminster such as Alistair Darling, Annabel Goldie and Charles Kennedy the time to take part while denying Salmond a single person or party on which to concentrate his fire.

Besides offering safety in numbers, it would also allow Cameron and George Osborne to fade into the background when required, so as not to provoke a backlash, and let the Unionists paint Salmond as isolated in his call for independence. He would be one; they would be many.

The Unionist campaign is likely to have two main strands: the positive sides of the union – currency, defence, the welfare state – and questions for Salmond on the costs of separation and the impact on the economy and the currency.

So far, Salmond's case for independence has been a series of assertions about Scotland being a happier, more economically vibrant place if it stood on its own two feet. The Unionist parties now intend to put those claims under the microscope, focusing particularly on the financial aspects.

They know voters can be quite mercenary – a recent survey showed support for independence surging if it made people £500 a year richer, but collapsing if cost them an extra £500 a year.

The idea an independent Scotland might have to use the euro in order to join the EU will be a key weapon their armoury.

And look out for more personal lines of attack. Salmond's centrality to the SNP cause means their greatest asset is also their Achilles heel. If the First Minister were out of the picture, it would almost certainly be game over for the referendum.

However, Salmond's announcement of the autumn 2014 date for the referendum has led to some revisionist thinking about his judgment.

One Labour MP said Salmond's failure to hold an early referendum was now being viewed as his "Gordon Brown moment" – the equivalent of Brown's fateful decision not to hold a general election in October 2007 which he could probably have won.

The Labour MP said: "We had no money, no strategy and no campaign last year. It will all be different by 2014. Alex has missed his best chance and it will haunt him."

You can still expect some serious muck-raking in the coming months – if the First Minister has any skeletons, a pre-emptive confession might be in order.

Salmond won the 2011 Holyrood election by appealing to disaffected Labour voters. To win the independence referendum, he must keep those converts and recruit some more. The Unionists will therefore be going all-out to retrieve lost supporters.

One senior LibDem said: "Most of the swing voters in this are Labour-leaning voters. That's who Salmond is hoping to persuade. That's why he says anyone who lines up with the Tories is evil."

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the former Conservative Scottish Secretary, went further, saying that Labour should lead the No campaign, not the Coalition parties.

He said: "Scotland has always been a strongly left of centre, Labour country. I think the campaign should be led, certainly on the political side, by someone from the Labour party.

"Alistair Darling would be excellent to do that."

However, the Unionist campaign is ultimately reliant on two massive assumptions. One, that Salmond doesn't really want a referendum, because two, he knows he would surely lose.

"I don't think that Alex Salmond has a snowball's chance in hell of winning a referendum," said Forsyth.

"He's trying to put off the day of reckoning as far as he possibly can."

But that is belied by the SNP ground war, which is real and growing.

Angus Robertson, the SNP campaign manager, isn't blowing up inflatable tanks to trick the enemy. Instead he is going round the country to packed meetings, party members in voter psychology, social media and database management.

The party already has £2 million in its coffers and is actively soliciting more donations.

All this preparation seems a funny way to hide from a referendum. Perhaps the Unionists have even walked into a Salmond trap, giving him the power to hold the legally rock-solid referendum he always wanted – the First Minister accepted the Section 30 offer with alacrity, after all, despite whining about strings being attached.

In which case, Michael Moore has just handed over the loaded weapon which could kill the Union.

No-one can say what the next 1000 days hold. This will be a unique campaign – long, strange, with luck enlightening, but highly unpredictable.

The Unionists have had a decent first week, but there are still around another 140 to go.

Polls move. Three more years of austerity cuts from Osborne could shift opinion decisively.

Salmond doesn't need to tout independence as a panacea for Scotland – just offering a way out of a rut could be enough.

Whatever the outcome, it's going to be an extraordinary ride.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

80055