A century ago, with Britain in peril, Lord Kitchener’s stern countenance demanded that every stout-hearted Briton do their bit for King and Country. ‘Your country needs you’ rallied hundreds of thousands to khaki and the Kaiser’s War. Today, with Britain in peril again, you could be forgiven for asking where Kitchener’s successor is. A new recruiting poster might cry: ‘Britons: Wake up! Pay attention! Your country really is at risk!’ The threat, of course, is domestic rather than foreign (for now, at least). It is beginning to be appreciated, even in London, that Alex Salmond might just win his independence referendum in September. The break-up of Britain will have begun, David Cameron will have to contemplate being Prime Minister of a rump country — and HMS Britannia will be sunk, not with a bang but a whimper. It will be due as much to English indifference as Scottish agitation.
The battle for Britain is being conducted on a wavelength which unionist politicians in London struggle to pick up. The nationalists have been preparing for this vote all of their political lives — and know that it is a fight like no other. The unionists seem rather worse prepared. Like hockey players sent on to play a game of rugby, they have a rough idea of the game — but many, especially those based in London, don’t properly understand its rules. The unionists can babble on about the Barnett formula and a hundred other details but, in the end, these are mere details. Salmond’s nationalists offer a tryst with destiny. And the future.
It is easy to assume, in England, that Salmond is sunk. After all, aren’t all other major political parties uniting against him? It is less appreciated that the other parties are the same ones Salmond has outmanoeuvred at every turn since 2011, when the SNP first won an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament. As referendum day draws closer, a formerly formidable unionist advantage is being whittled away. Since Salmond published his ‘white paper on independence’, six successive opinion polls have shown a swing towards a ‘yes’ vote. At present, more than 40 per cent of decided voters plan to vote for independence. It does not take a psephologist to work out that Salmond may win.
If momentum is with the nationalists, so is organisational muscle. ‘Yes Scotland’ groups have sprung up in almost every small town in the land. Every night, somewhere in Scotland, nationalists meet to plot their strategy — with a morale and determination not to be found among the grassroots of any Westminster party. Last week, for example, the second issue of a nationalist propaganda newspaper — imaginatively called YES — was delivered to thousands of households. Even now, Alistair Darling’s ‘Better Together’ campaign seems quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath.
Unionists raise procedural, legalistic difficulties such as the precise nature of an independent Scotland’s relationship with the European Union, or how much representation, if any, Salmond should expect on the board of the Bank of England. These concerns, while real, can seem tangential to the greater issues: what kind of Scotland is being fought for? And what kind of Britain, too? Salmond assures Scots that technical difficulties should certainly not be used to bar the march of the nation. Or, as he put it recently, ‘Let’s not wake up on the morning of September 19th and think to ourselves what might have been’..
Real Scots vote ‘yes’; timid Scots vote ‘no’ — and doubtless, in time, will fill a coward’s grave. This might seem a form of emotional blackmail, but it is a mightily effective one.
At the same time, Salmond argues that very little will change. The nationalist campaign might be subtitled ‘Project Reassurance’. Nevertheless, despite presenting his case as a question of fiscal accountancy and common sense, the true appeal of independence is still emotional. What kind of country, Salmond and his colleagues will ask, rejects the chance to govern itself? It is a good question. The answer, of course, is a country that rejects as false the choice between two identities. You can be a Highlander, Scottish and British — just as you can be Cornish, English and British. Even so, Salmond articulates a vision of a better, purely Scottish future in ways that no unionist politician has yet matched.
England has spent so long regarding separatist movements as a joke that it struggles to accept how potent the threat is now. Once a voter has crossed the Rubicon to join the nationalist camp, it is devilishly difficult to persuade them to retrace their steps. It is difficult work finding voters who have moved from yes to no — whereas the reverse is more common, and certainly more widely discussed.
Moreover, the unionist campaign has the dysfunctionality that you would expect from a hybrid beast: Tory money for Labour men. This, manifestly, is an alliance of temporary convenience. The Tories, bashful as ever, are reluctant to campaign vigorously for the Union lest their unpopularity in Scotland weaken the overall case for unionism.
Labour are reluctant to be seen within spitting distance of any Tory. Moreover, the unionist alliance allows the SNP to argue that there is no functional difference between the Labour and Conservative parties. Only the SNP will stand up for Scotland’s interests by putting Scotland first.
Indeed, the SNP’s strategy is, in part, based upon creating the impression that Scotland and England have become such vastly different places that it is impossible for them to remain together. They argue that a distinctively ‘social democratic’ Scotland is now hopelessly out of step with — and held back by — a ‘neoliberal’ consensus at Westminster.
The question then becomes not whether Scotland can afford to leave the Union but whether she can afford to stay. In this way, the burden of proof is transferred to unionists. Similarly, nationalists ask unionists to spell out their plans for what happens after a ‘no’ vote. As yet, none has chosen to do so, allowing the SNP to claim this demonstrates that there are no such plans.
Unionism is further handicapped by David Cameron’s disinclination to play a part in the referendum. I’m told that he caveated his Christmas cards by saying it would only be a ‘happy new year’ with a ‘large No vote’. But he believes that he can best help the ‘no’ cause by steering clear of it — this week, he chose London as the venue for his speech on Scotland. Asked to explain the benefits of independence in a single sentence, Blair Jenkins, the chief of ‘Yes Scotland’, has taken to summarising the essence of the issue as ‘No more Tory governments. Ever.’ The target is swithering Labour voters and the message is powerful because it is simple.
The Prime Minister is not the only hesitant campaigner. Many businesses — much to the irritation of leading unionists — have been reluctant to intervene in the referendum campaign. The chief executive of BP this week urged Britain to stay together, but this was unusual. Other business leaders don’t want to make an enemy of the man who may well be running the whole country. Financiers know that any attempt to question the wisdom of independence is met with accusations of ‘talking Scotland down.’ If only, nationalists sigh, our opponents shared our faith in the Scottish people.
This is another example of how well the SNP have framed the debate. They make it sound like a bureaucratic no-brainer: why shouldn’t the decisions that affect Scotland be taken, wherever possible, in Scotland? It is the same logic that drives Tory Euroscepticism, an irony that will not be lost upon a Prime Minister who is fighting wars in Edinburgh and Brussels.
Salmond is fond of borrowing John Steinbeck’s reply to a letter from Jackie Kennedy in which the novelist wrote, ‘You talked of Scotland as a lost cause and that is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause.’ Salmond has the advantage of knowing what he fights for. Can unionists say the same?
They do have one powerful card to play: Britishness. The SNP do not, in fact, want to talk about losing this identity — at least, not openly. Perhaps because, despite everything, Britishness still has a surprising appeal: Scots cheered Jessica Ennis at the Olympics as a countryman. Andy Murray draped himself in a Union flag at Wimbledon last year. This is still the country of Shakespeare and Burns, Dickens and Scott. What unites us — in culture, politics and temperament — is far greater than anything that divides us. Salmond argues that England should prefer a good neighbour to a ‘surly lodger’, forgetting that many Scots do not think themselves mere lodgers in Britain. It is their home.
In any case, if Britishness were really finished, Salmond would have no need to talk of the ‘social union’ that would survive — and, he says, flourish — after independence. Identity matters, but so does economics. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has shown that Scots’ commitment to the Union is provisional and subject to a cost-benefit analysis. They — we — would support independence if it left Scots £500 a year better off and reject it if independence cost £500. Bought and sold for half an ounce of gold, if you will. A depressing thought, but a reminder of why the referendum remains too close to call.
This is an unusual argument, then, in which it is the unionists who stand to benefit from wrapping themselves in the flag and the nationalists who are surprisingly disinclined to do likewise. Salmond also benefits from the fact that most unionists are reluctant to pursue a scorched earth campaign based wholly upon the proposition that Scotland is too weak, too small, too poor to survive as an independent country. Insulting the electorate’s ability to run its own affairs would be a pitiful, demeaning strategy. But this concedes that independence is feasible, and shifts the question to whether it is desirable. ‘We could but shouldn’t’ is a harder case to make than ‘We can’t and mustn’t’.
Salmond is also a formidable late-stage campaigner. Two months before the 2011 Holyrood election, he languished 15 points behind in the polls — but went on to win an outright majority, in a voting system designed so no party would ever win an outright majority. No wonder senior strategists in No. 10 are said to believe Salmond’s victory is not just possible, but likely.
It is not too late to stem the nationalist tide, but time is not on the side of the Union. The length of the campaign itself offers ample time for Scots to become less fearful with the prospect of independence, and once the idea is planted, it grows. Yet, all the while, too many unionists think their case is so self-evident that it doesn’t need to be made with the same passion or verve. They should be afraid — their country may just slip away from beneath their feet.
Alex Massie lives in Edinburgh and blogs at spectator.co.uk/massie