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Features

The Union is saved – but at what cost?

The Nos have it, but Britain has been left a divided country. How did our politicians get the referendum battle so wrong?

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

The worst has not happened; Scotland has not seceded from the United Kingdom. But David Cameron will have known some time ago that, whichever side won in the referendum, there would be no victory. This morning, the United Kingdom wakes up to one of the biggest constitutional messes in its history.

Given that the unionists had the best product to sell — Britain — it is alarming that they were supported by only 55 per cent of Scots. For months, the opinion polls had suggested far bigger support. The unionists may have won the election, but the separatists emphatically won the campaign. The Prime Minister had to turn to Gordon Brown, and seemingly give him the authority to redraft the constitution at will. He must now accept the consequences.

Ever since the YouGov poll that put Yes ahead, the British government has — one cabinet minister admits — operated by one principle: to live another day. ‘Nothing less than a modern form of Scottish home rule’ was offered, and a vow to keep the Barnett formula was made in a desperate bid to persuade the Scots to stay. Having acted in haste, the Prime Minister will have to repent at leisure — starting now.

This referendum was meant to settle the question of Scottish independence for good. But few believe it has done that. ‘We have heard the settled will of the Scottish people,’ said the Prime Minister. Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, said, ‘The people of Scotland have spoken — we have chosen unity over division.’ Both will have known this to be untrue. There is no such thing as the settled will of the Scottish people, and almost half of them chose division. As one Labour insider admits, ‘There’s no way this is over.’ But this referendum — and more specifically the scramble to win it in the last fortnight — has created another question which now threatens to dominate politics.

The English Question is unavoidable, for as soon as parliament returns, the parties will move on the timetable dictated by Gordon Brown. He promised that a motion would be moved in parliament, on the day of a ‘no’ vote, to agree extra powers for Scotland (he meant powers to the Edinburgh parliament, which is a rather different thing). They will discuss which powers to devolve, focusing on income tax, housing benefit and welfare assessments. According to Brown, there will be agreement by St Andrew’s Day (30 November), and a Bill will then be presented to parliament in the New Year and agreed by Burns Night (25 January). The Union is to be rewired at breakneck speed.

Nick Clegg is quite happy with this, and Cameron, despite private reservations, set out the timetable in his statement outside Downing Street on Friday morning. Those who have spoken to the Prime Minister say he does not envisage any significant powers passing to Holyrood before the general election in May. As for Labour, Ed Balls is understood to be seething at all of this, saying that it makes it impossible for Labour to pass a budget for England. How could Scottish MPs vote on income tax that did not affect their constituents? He has pointedly refused to endorse the Brown plan.

But the biggest problem may be backbench Tory MPs. ‘I have never known the party so angry,’ says one minister. ‘They’re seething with this “vow” and believe that Cameron has no right to sign anything away to Scotland without his party’s approval. They’re quite capable of withholding their support for the Bill, and to hell with the consequences.’

Of course, any failure to deliver ‘Scottish Home Rule’ to the Brown timetable will give the Nationalists the excuse they need to reopen the whole independence debate. Alex Salmond conceded only that Scots did not want to separate ‘at this time’. The First Minister would be delighted to be able to claim that Scots rejected independence on a false premise: that they were pledged far more powers, but perfidious Westminster did not honour this pledge. So if Cameron is reined back by his party, then the SNP will be pushing for another vote — and the result will be a ‘neverendum’, with constant constitutional instability.

Clegg is quite keen on a new settlement for England, and doesn’t mind whether that means more power to the cities (i.e. to mayors) or power at a regional level. ‘But we have to remember that England has not shown much enthusiasm for this so far,’ says one Lib Dem minister. ‘They voted down regional assemblies, and almost all of the proposals for mayors. We can’t foist a new, rushed settlement on England.’ Comparisons are being drawn with the so-called Scottish Constitutional Convention, which preceded devolution in 1999. Its meetings took six years.

The origins of this mess go back to the last century. The whole New Labour devolution settlement has been a disaster. It was intended to (as Labour then put it) ‘kill demand for independence stone dead’. And it was an obsession for Scottish Labour. The late John Smith wanted this done, and Tony Blair inherited the project. The idea was to make a separatist majority impossible. After all, in a four-party system with semi–proportional voting, was any party ever going to win an outright majority?

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But rather than strengthen the Union, devolution weakened it by creating separate national conversations. National newspapers began to produce Scottish editions — they were a commercial success, but meant the people of Britain knew less and less about each other. Even Westminster insiders are uninterested in the Holyrood parliament. As one Tory cabinet member puts it: ‘I could not name more than three members of the Scottish government, which is bad. What’s worse, in fact, is that I could not care.’

When Scottish Labour held its leadership contest, Ed Miliband was asked on camera to name all the contenders. He couldn’t. His ignorance was made marginally more excusable by the lamentable quality of the candidates. That Better Together has appeared keener to use the leader of the Scottish Conservatives than the Scottish Labour party in recent weeks tells you all you need to know about the abilities of Johann Lamont and the candidates she defeated.

Devolution sent the best nationalists to Edinburgh, and the rest of Scotland’s best politicians to Westminster, hoping to govern the United Kingdom. Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon faced an army of B-division politicians, and they duly made mincemeat out of them in the 2011 Holyrood elections, and have done so again in the last few weeks. Even when the big beasts returned, the Nationalists were able to suggest that they were somehow less Scottish for being at Westminster. They fed the idea that these politicians were only defending the Union so they could keep their jobs and carry on claiming their expenses.

At the last general election, Scottish Labour appeared to be as dominant as ever, with 42 per cent of the vote. Yet this disguised the extent of the rot. Safe seats made Scottish Labour lazy. They spent years winning without fighting. The party failed to recruit inspiring new leaders, in Scotland or England. Voters in Scotland who loathe the Tories and think the Labour leader is just as bad are far more likely to want separation. The greatest single problem for the Better Together campaign was the defection of Labour voters.

Perhaps the biggest reveal of the decline of Scottish Labour is how it relied on George Galloway to reach its traditional working-class supporters in the final frantic weeks of the campaign. Galloway does not sit for a Scottish seat and is not even a Labour MP, having been expelled from the party. But he was the man that the No campaign deployed with increasing frequency to make the left-wing case for the Union.

But it was Cameron, not anyone in the Labour party, who granted the referendum, and accepted Salmond’s loaded question. It was Cameron who ruled out the middle option, ‘devo max’, which he came close to offering anyway. At the time, No. 10 aides briefed that Cameron had cleverly forced the issue by forcing Salmond to hold a referendum on a single yes-or-no question. It does not seem so clever now.

One cabinet minister laments, ‘We didn’t learn the lessons of the 1975 European referendum. The question should have been “Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?” That would have made the campaign less negative.’ The actual question — ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ — reads like something that belongs in an SNP leaflet rather than on a ballot paper. It is hard to imagine an EU referendum being fought with a question along the lines of ‘Should Britain be a self-governing country?’

Once the terms of the referendum were agreed, the coalition parties outsourced the winning of it to the Labour party — a recognition of the fact that Scottish Tories are now pitied (far worse than being hated) and that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are so weak that all of his mainland Scottish seats are in danger. The coalition parties’ two highly skilled, highly paid electoral campaign managers — Lynton Crosby and Ryan Coetzee — were not involved in the Scotland campaign. This divorced the political strategies of the two governing parties from the referendum. Crosby has been warning for months that the result was not going to be the foregone conclusion so many in Westminster assumed it would be.

Take, for example, the question of what currency an independent Scotland would use. Better Together’s polling had revealed that this was a crucial issue for undecided voters, so it was decided that all the Westminster parties should rule out a currency union. But to the horror of political professionals, no proper polling had been done about how this announcement should be made. So George Osborne headed to Edinburgh to set down what an independent Scotland could have. Ed Balls and Danny Alexander immediately gave their backing. Played that way, one of the ‘no’ campaign’s strongest arguments simply became more evidence for the ‘yes’ campaign’s contention that the Westminster parties were bullying Scotland.

Another problem was that the coalition could not decide whom it wanted to run the Better Together campaign. John Reid was at first regarded as the perfect choice — a Labour figure untainted by the great recession who appealed to the working-class west of Scotland voters who would determine the result. He was also a street fighter, someone who could tackle Salmond on his own terms. But he could not be persuaded, so Alistair Darling was chosen.

Darling is one of the most decent men in politics — but he is a cerebral, cautious Edinburgh lawyer: not the type who would be expected to triumph in the pub brawl that the referendum was to become. With the notable exception of the first debate, Darling struggled to expose Salmond’s fact-twisting demagoguery.

To be fair, Darling has had many crosses to bear. Tory doubts about him have regularly found their way into the newspapers at inconvenient moments. The heaviest burden that he has had to bear, though, is that of the Labour party and the Scottish Labour party. He has had to deal with a slew of negative briefings against him, including stories that he had effectively been replaced as head of the campaign. Those close to him regularly erupted at Labour’s inability to avoid this kind of self-harm.

The Better Together campaign was a cross-party affair. But what most infuriated the Tories about it was, ironically, the responsibility of the Conservative pollster Andrew Cooper. They blamed him for the lack of emphasis on Britishness. When The Spectator pointed out to a No. 10 aide that an ICM poll had found that the most common reason for voting ‘No’ was a sense of attachment to the rest of the UK, head office reacted with shock, replying: ‘But that’s not what Andrew’s polling has been saying.’ Cooper’s numbers suggested that a heavily economic case was more likely to succeed.

A mixture of Labour squeamishness and Tory uselessness ensured that the battle for Britain was never properly fought. The case for the Union was reduced to a series of dire and sometimes implausible warnings. ‘No ifs, no buts — an independent Scotland would not share the pound with the rest of the UK,’ declared Osborne. But were the redcoats really going to come north and prise the pound from Scottish purses? Of course not. As Darling later admitted, Scotland could keep using the pound if it wanted. The issue was whether it could share a central bank.

Even Gordon Brown, a ninja of attack politics, complained that Better Together was too negative. He sulked in his tent for much of the campaign, and his suggestion that David Cameron should debate Alex Salmond was positively malicious. He was passionate and effective in the last few weeks, but the last Scottish prime minister of the United Kingdom, a living rejection of the SNP’s colonial-oppression argument, spoke up too late to have the positive impact he should have done.

Even more striking is the fact that the most powerful union in Britain, Unite, sat out the contest. Len McCluskey’s public explanation for this was that his Scottish membership was split. But senior Labour figures believe that his real motivation was to show the party that Unite’s support could not be taken for granted. McCluskey wanted to make it clear that if his union could not get what it wanted from Labour, it wouldn’t pledge money or organisational assistance. Sitting out the referendum was meant to show that he was prepared to sit out other elections, too, if he didn’t feel his union’s needs were being met. This gambit nearly contributed to the break-up of the United Kingdom and with it the end of any possibility of a genuinely left-wing government at Westminster.

But the most useful idiot for the ‘yes’ campaign was the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham. Ever since the 2010 leadership election, he has had his eye on a second tilt at the crown. He has changed from a modernising, Blairite to a rabble-rousing, left-wing populist. Since returning to the health brief, he has indulged in the most absurd hyperbole about the NHS being sold off and privatised under the evil Tories — rhetoric that the ‘yes’ campaign picked up and gleefully repackaged. Vote yes, Scottish voters were told, to save the NHS.

NHS Scotland was scarcely mentioned in Alex Salmond’s massive blueprint for an independent Scotland. He could not honestly claim that it was under any kind of threat from London. But Salmond quickly realised that he could claim whatever he liked — no matter how absurd. His opponents would be too busy contradicting each other to mount any credible defence.

The unionist campaign was designed to achieve a victory clear enough to end the independence question for a generation. Instead, it found itself taking support for separation to levels never seen, or anticipated. Scotland is now a divided country, after a debate that has split families and damaged friendships. The healing process will begin, but no one can claim the country is stronger for all of this. It would have been bad enough for the combination of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg to have had no impact in saving the Union — but in many ways they managed to make things worse. This weekend, all three party leaders have a lot to answer for.

Full analysis of the result and its aftermath is on spectator.co.uk

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