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Indyref minus 200: meeting the Blairs across the Yes/No divide

THE "fence-sitting period" is well and truly over, declares Blair McDougall as both sides of the indyref campaign mark 200 days until the vote.

Blair Jenkins and Blair McDougall

The campaign director of Better Together, the pro-union campaign formed by Labour, the LibDems and the Tories, says the referendum is finally coming into focus for voters.

Chancellor George Osborne ruling out of a formal currency union with an independent Scotland; EC president Manuel Barroso raising the spectre of long, hard EU negotiations on EU membership; and household names such as Standard Life warning of jobs moving south in the event of a Yes vote.

McDougall doesn't take credit for every part of the recent pile-up that's hit the Yes campaign, but he does say it's no coincidence that the start of 2014 has seen so much drama.

With just six months to go, businesses, academics and politicians feel they can no longer stay quiet, he says.

"What you're seeing are moments of clarity and certainty coming together. I think with moments like the pound, and Barroso, we're beginning to see more certainty on some of those big issues."

Although Better Together hasn't played its full hand yet - McDougall promises surprises and "symbolic and emotionally attractive big moments still to come" - its biggest card to date was undoubtedly that currency statement.

Better Together's focus groups report the pound is seen by the one million undecided voters - for campaigning purposes the only voters Better Together cares about - as pivotal.

The pound, he says, is "the tangible expression of the strength and security of the UK".

Which is why Better Together has been "banging on" about it since their launch in June 2012.

He won't discuss the detail behind Osborne's announcement, but it is understood the Better Together parties agreed the line and the schedule more than six months ago.

Rather than a reaction to recent polls, the timing was set to coincide with the onset of the financial reporting season, forcing big businesses such as Standard Life to comment.

"Voters are worried about what their money will be, in a way they wouldn't have been five years ago because they've watched the euro.

"The value of having something certain and trusted is greater than it would have been. What it will buy is a big thing as well," he says.

Better Together's plan now is to link currency to the cost of living crisis and job security, more pressure points for swaying voters.

"For those people in the middle, it's much more a personal transactional decision, about their own finances and their family's finances."

It's not inspirational - reducing a historic moment to getting people in a sweat about their bank balance - but "if it works, it works" is the calculation at Better Together's headquarters in Glasgow.

After all, these are electors who, when polled in a Scottish Social Attitudes survey about the difference £500 would make, said they would switch sides for a tenner a week.

"Our strategy is working," insists McDougall. "Our message will always be the economic risk and gamble of independence versus the safer, better way to create a better Scotland through devolution, which offers you distinctive decision-making with the back up of the UK."

Nor is he worried by recent polls showing a narrowing of the No side's lead. He says such "wavy lines" in the polls are nothing new.

Can it be seen as a concrete shift towards Yes?

"No. Because the fundamentals within all of the public polling and our own research is that the thing people are making up their mind on is the economy and our strength on that hasn't moved."

Nor is he fazed by the relentless SNP attacks on Labour for aligning itself with the Tories.

Surprisingly, and not entirely plausibly, he claims Alex Salmond's focus on the Labour-Tory link is a help to the No side.

"It's a mistake for him to do that," he says, "because people like politicians who they know are otherwise mortal enemies putting aside their differences to work together."

So would he recommend Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor and Better Together chair, having his picture taken with Osborne?

"Er, I'm not sure why he would do that." Quite.

But not even long-term Labour campaigner McDougall can hide the fact the parties in Better Together haven't managed to agree a common offer of more powers for devolution.

It's something the polls say voters want, but after setting up three commissions to chew over the issue, the parties have failed to agree a plan, allowing the SNP to claim a No vote would halt devolution.

McDougall only says there will be "overlaps" between the positions.

"But I don't think undecided voters are sitting waiting for a package of devolution. What they want is a reassurance that the things they value about devolution will continue."

No interview with McDougall would be complete without mention of "Project Fear", the in-house joke that got out - via the Sunday Herald - and came back to bite the campaign.

An ironic name for Better Together among its own staff, it was seized on by the Yes side as the perfect summation of the Unionist campaign.

He no longer denies the phrase came from Better Together, and tries to laugh it off as trivia, but he's obviously uncomfortable.

Is he still kicking himself?

"Not particularly, no. Look, these things, people get very excited about them, but are they really going to influence people's views in terms of how they vote? I don't think so."

Was it his personal coinage? "No."

Has he stopped using it? "I don't think we're going to get into this."

Did Alistair Darling not pick up the phone and say, "What the hell was that about?"

There is a weary pause. "I think we've said everything we've got to say."

But does he accept there's been scaremongering?

"I don't think so. I think we've been pretty measured in the way we've described things."

Steeped in polls, focus groups and jargon, McDougall is a hardened campaign animal. He isn't out to inspire, he's out to win.

Hence the exclusive focus on undecided voters.

"We are relentlessly guided by what undecided voters think. The things that come out of our campaign, the issues that we talk about, the materials, everything is informed by what they think and what they're interested in."

His critics say it's a tacit admission that Better Together is losing undecided voters to Yes, but McDougall genuinely doesn't look jumpy.

"I think we will win, and I think we will win well," he says confidently.

He's either in possession of secret knowledge or a very good actor.

Jenkins: Doubts over currency union alternative

BLAIR Jenkins is proud of no longer being in control of the Yes campaign. In his 20 months as chief executive of Yes Scotland, the cross-party independence movement that includes the SNP, Greens and Scottish Socialists, he says it has mushroomed to such an extent it has developed a life of its own.

Now, on the eve of a spring campaign offensive, things are well past the point where it is possible to track everything Yes Scotland's volunteer army is getting up to.

Ignorance really is bliss in such matters.

"There is so much of it going on now," he explains cheerfully in his Glasgow headquarters.

"Referendum cafes, public meetings, it's enormous. We're no longer able to have an accurate handle on what's happening, because like a proper grassroots campaign it's self-generating, it's autonomous, people are getting on with it.

"The scale of that is quite phenomenal."

The contrast with Better Together, the pro-union campaign based a few streets away, is stark, he suggests.

"In all honesty there isn't a corresponding level of activity on the other side.

"The No campaign is much more based on the political parties in Better Together.

"I don't want to be dismissive, but to some extent it's a bunch of politicians talking to one another, at least the ones that are still talking to one another.

"We've no sense there's anything like the same level of activity, the same volunteer canvassing and campaigning as there is on the Yes side. That's a real advantage to us as we go into the final months of the campaign."

Not that Jenkins and his skeleton staff in Hope Street are sitting back, mind you.

Later this month, Yes Scotland is expected to bet the farm on a £2 million-plus advertising blitz that will run on billboards and in cinemas all the way to referendum day on September 18.

Jenkins is coy about what is planned, but says the public won't miss it.

"You won't see any dramatic change in the case we're making for why independence is the right option for Scotland. But I think people will notice that we've turned up the volume."

Like most referendum watchers, Jenkins agrees that the arrival of 2014 has seen a marked jump in the pace and temperature of the debate.

To the delight of the Yes side, recent weeks have also brought a slew of opinion polls suggesting the No side's lead is shrinking.

"We always knew that the movement was towards us," says Jenkins, "and that's now coming through in the polls. The direction of travel is obviously encouraging."

He says the poll results have spooked the unionists, as they expected support for a Yes to erode rather than grow through the campaign.

"The fact that the movement is the other way is what's giving them real cause for concern.

"Because in a sense they've fired, if not all, then certainly most of their best shots against the whole concept of independence. But what we're finding is that as people get more information they come more to Yes than to No.

"What's hard to predict is the speed."

Probably the biggest of those "best shots" was George Osborne's recent announcement, backed by Labour and the LibDems, that an independent Scotland could not use the pound in a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.

Alex Salmond instantly dismissed it as bluff and bullying from the Chancellor, but since then some big companies, including Standard Life, have hinted darkly at quitting Scotland if there is uncertainty over the currency.

Better Together expects the issue to gnaw away at voters as they ponder how any political change could hit their spending power.

Although there is always the "Plan B" of using the pound in an informal currency union, so-called sterlingisation, it would mean the Bank of England would no longer be guaranteed as lender of last resort if Scottish banks or finance houses needed life support again.

There have been some nods from the SNP that an independent Scotland might use this option if the rest of the UK stood its ground.

Jenkins insists that sterlingisation is "viable", but when reminded that Salmond's own Fiscal Commission Working Group merely mentioned it "as an aside" before dismissing it in a single paragraph of its report on currency options, he starts to backtrack.

"It's not the option that I would want. I'm not putting it forward as a good option. I don't think it is. I think a formal currency union makes much more sense. So it's not my option."

He is also wobbly about Yes Scotland's recent refusal to release its donor information, despite a stated commitment to "transparency".

Its last disclosure was in April 2013, while Better Together released fresh figures in December.

Not so long ago, Jenkins said the two sides ought to release their numbers together. Such timing would be "ideal", he said.

Now, he says Yes Scotland will stick to its own timetable, with new figures in the spring, and won't be "stampeded by Better Together".

But asked to discuss why all five of Yes Scotland's "top team" of directors have either walked or been sacked in the last year, he switches off like a light, all bonhomie gone.

Surely that exodus wasn't in the plan; a sign that not all is well in Yes Scotland?

"I'm not discussing personnel issues," he says, repeatedly.

But overall, he remains remarkably chipper for the head of a campaign still behind in the polls with 200 days to go.

The momentum is with Yes, he says, and as the days lighten and the weather improves, the campaign will hit the streets as never before, just as voter interest starts to take off.

And despite conventional wisdom saying that support for a Yes should shrink near the winning line, he predicts that it will grow instead.

"I've always thought the final weeks of the campaign will be to our advantage because the positive emotional energy we've created around a Yes vote over two years will be a big influence on people. I think people will just be more attracted to the positivity around a Yes than the negativity around No."

Jenkins isn't a campaign wonk trying to grind out a result. He's a believer, hoping that big inspirational themes - opportunity, optimism, change - will convince people to back independence.

The job, he says, remains "an absolute pleasure and privilege", despite challenging weeks.

"I come to work every day with a spring in my step and a song in my heart because I am absolutely convinced this is the right thing for Scotland to do. I have never felt this energised and enthused by anything I've done in my life as I am with this.

"I fundamentally believe Scotland will be a healthier, wealthier, happier society as an independent country. That gets you through the toughest week."

He's utterly convinced that it will be a Yes. But if it's a No, he'd be "gutted".

"You would feel gutted, but I respect the democratic process."

"In the end, neither of the two campaigns is going to win in September. The people of Scotland will make a decision and the decision they make will be right for people at that time and you can't complain about that."

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