Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters, and a former Scottish Conservative Head of Communications.
Scottish Referendum Day
September 19th 2014 was a day filled with vigorous back-patting, untempered self-congratulation and riotous beating of Unionist chests. And that was just Gordon Brown. Downing Street, too, was very pleased with itself. The 55:45 result was comprehensive – so said our leaders. I even heard it described as a landslide, based on the logic that a ten-point victory in an election would be described as such, so this should be, too.
This was delusion, heaped on top of complacency. Because there was another group of people who were also quietly satisfied with their result – the small but brilliant team of SNP strategists who understood far better than their rivals the scale and significance of what they had just achieved.
They started this journey back in 2007, when they replaced the tired Labour party in the corridors of power in Edinburgh, and on the same day gained a foothold in communities where they had never before featured as a result of the new Single Transferable Vote system for local authority elections.
That foothold, combined with a stable minority government, vast reserves of money and an incomparably superior campaign to Labour’s, led to the SNP breaking the electoral system in 2011 by winning a Holyrood majority, leading to an independence referendum in which they convinced 45 per cent of people to vote Yes. This, please remember, is in a country where the pro-independence movement had consistently failed to poll more than 25-30 per cent for decades on end.
On September 19th, while the Unionists celebrated, this group of nationalists got back to work, planning the next leg of the journey. And here we are, with this leg of the SNP’s journey to independence going perfectly to plan. The most chilling aspect of the rise of the pro-independence movement post-referendum is that Downing Street doesn’t appear to have noticed.
The coming election
Two campaigns are being fought in this general election. The first, to state the blindingly obvious, is the campaign to win it. That’s the focus of Downing Street; understandable, to a large degree. So when Downing Street strategists see polling predicting an SNP victory in Scotland and Labour losing, say, 30 of its seats, they break into a collective smile.
That they do so simply betrays the fact that they are unaware of the existence of the other campaign – that’s the campaign for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Because, to be sure, that campaign is alive and kicking. SNP strategists see a viable, simple and credible pathway to Indyref2.
They need to be the largest Scottish party at Westminster, which currently looks likely. And they need David Cameron to remain as Prime Minister, which seems to be, at least, possible. This would offer them precisely the backdrop they need to justify a 2016 manifesto containing a referendum commitment.
The justification would be three-sided. First, London lied to us. Gordon Brown promised a ‘federal-like state’ and instead we got the Smith Commission, which in the final analysis is little more than a sexed-up version of Calman. Second, we in Scotland are faced with a renewed programme of austerity despite 90 per cent (or whatever) of the country voting against it. Third, those anti-European lunatics in England are going to yank us out of the EU against our wishes.
I have no doubt that the SNP has the ability to sell this story to the public, with the narrative that the only way to take control of our own destiny is to deliver another SNP majority and 2016 and vote Yes in the second independence referendum.
So the path to Indyref 2 is, in fact, fairly straightforward. It requires individual events, all of which pass the credibility test. Nonetheless, that is not to say it cannot be stopped. And there are two ways to do that.
The first is for Labour to win the General Election (which is why I remain sceptical that the SNP will seek to prop up a minority Labour administration). With Labour in government in the UK, the environment for another referendum in Scotland is much less fertile because the SNP’s austerity message will be less credible, and the spectre of EU withdrawal will be absent. Although by no means impossible, I suspect that the SNP will decide to fudge the referendum issue in its 2016 manifesto in the event of a Miliband victory.
Now, readers of ConHome are unlikely to be overjoyed by the prospect of losing the election to Labour. So the question for Conservatives all over the UK, and particularly those in Downing Street, is this: do you want to keep Scotland, or not?
If you want to keep us, you can. You just have to stop patronising us with baby-step powers, none of which can stand the test of time, few of which are easily useable and all of which raise more questions than they answer.
The great irony of our time is that the people who know how to hold the UK together are not unionists, but nationalists. Not only do they hold the syringe full of poison; they also appear to be the only ones who know where the antidote is hidden.
That antidote is federalism. When one caught a nationalist in a private moment before the referendum, they always admitted they were afraid of only one thing – a credible, sizeable constitutional offer from the Unionists. A destination, rather than another step on a journey to who-knows-where.
They were – and still are – afraid of federalism, because they know that federalism kills nationalism. And why? Because, as has been the case throughout the existence of the SNP, there are little more than 25 per cent of Scots who actually want to be independent. The rest of us just want to run our own affairs within the UK state.
If a true, genuine conversion to federalism had been made in advance of the referendum, David Cameron would have suffered none of the sleepless nights he spoke of. No awkward moments with the Queen. The failure to make such a commitment played into the hands of nationalists, and by offering only the limited powers of the Smith Commission we do so again now.
In 2012, Downing Street’s strategists were told that only a substantial, early offer on more devolution would deliver a referendum victory by a margin comfortable enough to put the issue to bed. They did not listen. They thought, at that time, that a 65:35 victory was inevitable. They knew best.
So, for Downing Street and David Cameron this is a defining moment. He could be the Prime Minister who leads us to the longest overdue but most radical programme of decentralisation to all parts of the UK including an English Parliament(s) and an federal senate. Or he could be the Prime Minister who, despite two opportunities to keep us, loses Scotland*.
Will David Cameron define the moment, or will the moment define him?
(*Or we could have Ed MIliband, of course…..)