25 June 2012

Preliminary thoughts on being "Better Together"...

A crony recently made an interesting point.  Today, the anti-independence campaign – Better Together – launches at Napier University in Edinburgh.  A clanjamfry of Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and politically unaligned Unionist opinion, the campaign is being fronted by former chancellor, Alistair Darling.  While it remains a little unclear who the prime movers and characters from the other parties might be, folk like Annabel Goldie and Charlie Kennedy have been mooted as likely Tory and Liberal Democrat contributors.  And one can see why. 

Dame Bella of Doily has mastered the impossible trick of being a personally likeable – if electorally unsuccessful – Tory character, spiced with humour and not beyond the odd matronly single entendre.  While Kennedy looks increasingly seamy, when he’s good he’s still very, very good, coming across as an eminently honest, authoritative, and decent cove.  Quick on his feet in an argument, Kennedy nevertheless manages to avoid any appearance of partisan brutality.  This combination is compelling.  Both still enjoy a higher public profile than their Holyrood leaders, Rennie and Davidson. 

Indeed, of the three, the one I’d etch a hard question mark against is Alastair Darling. The press clearly find him to be an impressive figure, and thus far, he’s been able to rely on pretty deferential coverage of his interventions in the public debate.  Like Gordon Brown, his shtick isn’t a rich charisma, spicy rhetoric or a spry charm.  Instead, Darling is austere. Darling is mostly humourless.  Darling was twice voted Britain’s most boring politician.  The professional functionary, he cuts a grafting figure: dogged, level-headed, no-nonsense, dull.  For many, the combined effect of these features will be an appearance of frankness, of sincerity.  No glamour, no razzmatazz, but – apparently – no political manoeuvres either.  It seems likely that the independence campaign will be overwhelmingly dominated by claims and counter-claims about economics, about policy detail on a whole gamut of more and less technical topics. Who better than a finicky former chancellor of the exchequer to rebut airy nationalist claims, to sow doubts, and to emphasise the risks, uncertainties and perils of independence?

That’s the logic anyway, but I wonder if the press – bedazzled by his alluring plainness – don’t overestimate Alistair Darling’s appeal to the wider population.  Best I know, there’s no recent polling on what Scots make of him – but I’d be surprised if the discernible press predisposition towards him is really reflected in wider popular opinion. But take the troika of Darling, Goldie, Kennedy.  What is their unifying feature? Annabel is still an MSP, of course, while the other two still sit as MPs at Westminster.  They haven’t exactly been put out to pasture, but the days of their direct political influence are now long behind them.

And here’s a potential snag.  As you’ll recall, in a speech at Edinburgh Castle in February this year, David Cameron indicated, exceedingly loosely, that further powers might be devolved to Holyrood, if Scots vote no.  This was widely interpreted as an attempt to avoid a framing of the debate in terms of independence or the status quo, which as we’ve seen, tends to produce higher support for independence.  Cameron may not want a devo-something question on the ballot paper, but he seems keen to avoid the impression of a recalcitrant London government, resisting reasonable demands for enhanced political autonomy for Scotland.  

At the time, Darling was quoted saying “I don’t think anybody would argue that the status quo, what we have at the moment, is satisfactory”.  We may well be leery about such shapeless reassurances from the Prime Minister, but the key difference between Darling and Cameron is that the latter is actually in a position to start making political promises, to adopt practical schemes for more devolution, and to make changes at Westminster.  Although the credibility and trustworthiness of the coalition in Scotland is in the gutter, at least Cameron and Clegg are in a credible position to make promises.  Better Together, by contrast, fronted by yesterday’s men and women at the lee end of their political careers, have no authority to do so. That might prove extremely tricky, if the No campaign find themselves under pressure to fill out the detail of their devolutionary counter-proposal.

Thus far, the robust argument emanating from the “No” campaign has been that independence for Scotland is transparently absurd or patent folly, and not really a topic about which reasonable souls can reasonably differ.  We’ve been invited to believe that the balance of uncertainty and risk is all one way.  Thus far, the press have had a bit of fun about disagreements in YesScotland about the monarchy in an independent Scotland, but if anything, the divisions in the No campaign offer even more opportunities for the porridge-stirring political hack, which are only likely to multiply and intensify as the campaign goes on.  

By way of illustration, I found this scrap of text on Ecclefechan Mackay’s office floor at the Kinlochbervie Chronicle which serves as a reasonable model.  If you think the republican/monarchist disagreements in the Yes campaign are the stuff of scandal and calumny, imagine the fun one can have with the No campaign, made up of cut-throat political foes who are knocking lumps out of each other day-in day-out, but whose primary referendum platform insists that despite their day to day indictments of each other's judgement, values and choices, we all somehow benefit from having decisions made about our lives in London, on a British level.  It's a choice predicament. 

FUNDAMENTAL policy splits are already threatening to undermine the launch of the independence No campaign, the Kinlochbervie Chronicle can reveal.  Key differences have emerged among the partners in the cross-party movement, which includes the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. 

While all three argue that the Union is good for Scotland, they disagree on what the good society looks like, which policies would be best for Britain as a whole, the effects of the current administration's policies on the country, the sort and extent of welfare protection which the state should provide, whether Britain should adopt a federal structure or remain highly centralised, whether or not to adopt proportional voting systems or stick with first past the post, how to reform or retain the House of Lords, retain or revoke membership of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights, whether to raise tax or to lower it, whose tax should be raised or lowered and why, the extent to which the private sector should be involved in public sector services, the scope of Britain’s participation in foreign and bloody military adventures – amongst other damaging splits across the whole field of public policy.

This week, David Cameron exposed the tensions in the campaign by outlining his vision of being “better together” by cutting welfare for jobless families supporting several children and scrapping housing benefit for under 25s.  A Labour spokesman admitted the Prime Minister’s position on welfare was “difficult to reconcile” with his party’s idea of being “stronger together” but insisted “we’re better and stronger together anyway.”

He continued: “It’s important for Scots to be absolutely clear about this.  Any criticisms we make of coalition policy in Westminster – however severe are completely irrelevant for the border issue.  You’d expect a narrow nationalist not to understand that being better together is about much, much more than whether or not things are actually better together.  I think most Scots bellyfeel a doubleplusgood blackwhite understanding of that.”  

21 comments :

  1. You confuse differences in political philosophy with differences in constitutional approaches.

    In any case, the same tensions you highlight among the BetterTogether team exist within the Nationalist camp.

    Left wing Council-Tax freezes and Corporation Tax cuts, anyone?

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  2. Surely, the council tax freeze is right wing. It would have to be a council tax rise to be 'left' wouldn't it - in your cosmology, that is?

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  3. Surely, the council tax freeze is right wing. It would have to be a council tax rise to be 'left' wouldn't it - in your cosmology, that is?

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  4. Anyway, the ludicorus notion that you can make every poliyc 'right' or 'left' stems form a misunderstanding of what Government is there to do. It's job is to make the country the best it can be using whatever levers it has available to it. That means being flexible on policy not ideologically driven without any thought for the outcome. That's student politics.

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  5. "Surely, the council tax freeze is right wing. "

    Yep. That's the point.....

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  6. "....ideologically driven without any thought for the outcome"

    d'you mean like the SNP?

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  7. Just out of curiosity, Councillor Gallagher - why do you persistently fail to disclose your somewhat partisan position? I can't offhand think of any other elected political official who participates in internet debate under a pseudonym.

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  8. I don't know anything about Councillor Gallagher, perhaps someone could enlighten me?

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  9. The council tax is a regressive tax - not as regressive as the poll tax - but regressive nonetheless.

    Stopping increases in council tax is therefore progressive - not as progressive as reducing it or abolishing it and moving to LIT or LVT - but progressive nonetheless.

    Only in the world of folk who think that Labour remains a progressive force would the proposition that freezing the council tax is right wing emerge.

    Now, what about a policy of denying Scotland self-determination so that an unelected government can impose housing benefit cuts and regional variations to unemployment benefit. Isn't that really right wing?

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  10. Did anyone else catch the Channel 4 news interview of Alasdair Darling tonight?

    The interviewer asked Darling if Tory money was funding the No campaign and wasn't Labour just acting as a front for Tory money?

    Unlike the SNP and the Yes campaign the No campaign have been remarkably coy about who is funding them and Darling's response was no more informative than before.

    He refused to give a straight answer which usually means that the informtion in the answer is either embarrassing and/or dangerous.

    It will be interesting when or if the campaign funding ever gets revealed who is really providing the funding of Labour's no campaign

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  11. "Braveheart" is in fact Cllr Alex Gallagher, from North Coast and Cumbraes ward in North Ayrshire. He chooses for some reason not to make this fact public anywhere, despite having been "unmasked" by keen-eyed nationalists, in the apparent hope that casual readers won't notice.

    Why's that, Councillor?

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  12. You've definitely hit the nail on the head with this post LPW.

    I actually think that whatever changed David Cameron's mind to casually drop interest in the timing of the referendum has also probably led him to think that the result of the referendum is a foregone conclusion.

    The swing required for independence to happen is virtually unprecedented after all.

    Given the magnitude of full on independence, it certainly seems unattainable at present.

    I don't really think the onus is on the Better Together campaign to do much other than ridicule the occasional SNP bit of post independence blather.

    As you allude to, the independence camp's best ally is in fact David Cameron.

    If he lasts in office another year, then things may become much more interesting.

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  13. Further to my post above, the interview with Alasdair Darling is on:

    http://www.channel4.com/news/scotland-independence-no-campaign-launches

    And the relevant part is 02:24 in from the start.

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  14. TBH, LPW, I don't see your point. 65% of SCots don't want "independence", but the Nationalists are determined to have a referendum, hence a campaign.

    The 65% deserve representation and, whoever leads that will be a human being(s) with flaws. So what?

    Alex Salmond has flaws and so has the pro-break up campaign.

    The campaign should be about the benefits of "independence".

    So far, I've not seen many.

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  15. Well Alex, for one we would never have to suffer another Tory Government.

    But I forget, they're your friends and allies now...

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  16. Alex, your 65% figure includes a massive number of people who don't want the status quo either. Add these to the people calling for independence, and you arrive at a similar number above 60% that wants substantial changes of some sort. Probably more like 70%, in fact.

    The status quo is the minority choice. People either want a much larger degree of devolution to Holyrood, or they want full independence. So there is a debate to be had - unfortunately, people such as yourself are denying people a large part of that debate. It's no good telling them to "vote no just now and then we can talk about more powers" as Lamont and her ilk do - people are not thick. If that's the line from the unionist camp for the next two years, it's going to sound pretty tired very soon.

    On the other hand, why am I even bothering to try and engage with someone who has long proven himself to be incapable of a mature debate?

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  17. Well, being a nat it is perfectly valid for LPW to have a go at the pro-union launch but it seems to have gone down better than the independence one (at which the words that caused most merriment were along the lines of "sadly Elaine can't be with us tonight') - and the use of non-slebs was a fine stroke as well.

    As for mixed political opinions among the union team, well hoot toot as an auld lord used to say - the SNP is a pressure cooker of conflicting political and social views.


    Just one point on Charles Kennedy - I can't share the 'lost prince' view of him by some in the pro-union camp nor do I share LPW's view of him as 'compelling'.

    I had friends involved in the Hetherington Occupation and his performance in the inquiry was - to be kind - shabby


    http://freehetherington.wordpress.com/

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  18. Doug

    I'm being generous in allowing 35% in favour of "independence". Even with the Nats golden result last your, less than 50% of a 50% turnout could actually be bothered to get off their arses and vote SNP.

    That's less than 25% of the voting population who care enough to actually support the party of "independence".

    Constitutional change is a serious matter. You need solid majorities to make it legitimate in the eyes of the whole populaton. The Nationalists have no such majority in prospect.

    As for Devo Max or Devo Plus or even Devo Minus, that's the stuff of devolution politics as usual.

    It's not defined enough. Nor is it a big enough break to justify a referendum question.

    We could, if we wished, have the debate in election campaigns and party manifestos for Holyrood and press whatever is agreed through Westminster. That's what happened with Calman.

    And, BTW, the SNP has a mandate for a referendum on "independence". No party has a mandate for "Devo Max", even supposing we knew what it was meant to be...

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  19. Independence requires a commitment to aspiration towards a better future.

    The status quo is a quagmire based on behavioural apathy amidst the mud of dogma providing mere existence.

    The name for that mud is called 'politics' Westminster style - but there they call it democracy.

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  20. Groundskeeper Willie26 June 2012 11:31

    If it's a straight Yes/No and the result is a No, what happens to Salmond and what happens to the SNP?

    What does the future hold for them?

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  21. James Morton26 June 2012 17:57

    @Groundskeeper Willie: In the event of a no vote, what happens to the SNP? That depends on the electorate and the parties record of government - compared with the less than stellar performance of the opposition parties. I know you feel that Salmond must immediately resign and then the SNP quit government, but it doesn't work that way. It's the voter who decides. If the majority vote no to indy, does not mean that they will then take leave of their senses and vote in the tories - nor does it mean they will re-elect labour - they could very well put the SNP back in charge.

    I am curious to see how unionists will react if that happens.

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