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Brian Monteith

If you were to believe what the Yes campaign and its tweeting supporters have been saying this last week or two one could be forgiven for thinking that the No campaign run by Better Together is in meltdown and that the independence referendum is about to be lost.

This is pure unadulterated tosh, conjured up from Yes supporters imbibing in too much wishful thinking.

The No campaign has not slipped behind in the polls, apart from a blip back in August last year that is generally dismissed as rogue, it has not been trailing, in fact it remains clearly in the lead with a great deal of the campaign still open for it to dictate. It is the Yes campaign that has shot its bolt: its White Paper was published in December last year and all it can do now is attack the No campaign and Unionist parties, hoping they will crack and make a goof, while occasionally unveiling a ‘new’ celebrity supporter (no doubt held back to be drip-fed to the media) to try and build an emotional case.

It is their White Paper strategy that is flawed, for it has laid out in advance something that cannot be guaranteed as an outcome after the vote – but can be dissected and destroyed – which is precisely what is happening.

For the SNP to announce now that an independent Scotland would be different from what is in the White Paper would be to concede that Alex Salmond cannot offer certainty in what he has promised.  Such an admission would shred the Yes campaign’s credibility – which is why he so steadfastly sticks to the line that the Pound Sterling will be shared in a formal currency union, merely because he says it will.

When it comes to arrogance there are few to match the Scottish nationalists.

Why, Nicola Sturgeon has not only ruled out the idea that the UK public might have a referendum on whether or not to enter into such an arrangement (something that will clearly not be for her to decide) – John Swinney has also managed to say that there will be no deal between a Scottish and UK government, allowing for instance the maintenance of the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines and facilities as some sort of trade-off.

This followed the dumb intervention of an unattributed government cabinet minister who thought it wise to second guess what might happen about currency negotiations if Scotland became independent – floating the idea that keeping the Trident base could sway the UK government. While this showed an astounding degree of ineptitude and ignorance the fact that the SNP ruled out any deal betrayed another weakness in the nationalists’ strategy: nothing is up for negotiation apparently, everything will be granted to Scotland – from the UK, from the EU and from Nato – because they say it will.

The reason for this is not just arrogance (although many of its supporters do actually believe it) but more that to concede potential trade-offs would risk open revolt in the Yes camp as independence begins to look more and more meaningless.

The SNP wants the public to believe that it is right in everything it says and that the only change in position after the referendum will come from the UK government. To admit it might be wrong or has to change a position before the referendum would therefore do the Yes campaign untold damage.

Readers unfamiliar with the referendum debate are probably also unaware that the SNP’s extravagant claims for providing more childcare – given top billing at the launch of the White Paper – have been left in tatters after some investigative work by The Herald political editor Tom Gordon, using FOIs, demonstrated the financial calculations were an invention.

Add to this the admission that its economic projections used revenues from oil and gas taxation that are now seen to be hugely overoptimistic and are being redrafted as I type, and one can only surmise that it is the Yes campaign that is suffering the setbacks.

Then there are the claims on European Union membership, university tuition fees, university research funding…the list goes on.  It is not negative to take apart the White Paper or other outrageous claims, when doing so establishes the truth and provides the real facts that the public wants.

Nor is it the No campaign that is losing senior staff hand over fist. That’s the Yes campaign’s problem where all five of the directors of various campaign operations have left since its launch, leaving only the chief executive from the original “top team”.

That the Scottish Liberal Democrats chose to use their annual conference to rubbish the Better Together campaign for its supposed many faults in strategy, tactics, downright stubborn refusal to be positive and inability to field Labour’s big guns no doubt fed into the last week’s maelstrom of impending doom.

Theirs was the collective behaviour of lemmings, although the furry creatures appear to have more spleen.  Based on this demonstration of mutiny in the ranks there were certainly no Lib Dems at Thermopylae. Either they have completely lost their nerve or they are playing a grander, larger game trying to taunt others to action.

Well, it has only given the Yes campaign solace and, as Labour blogger Ian Smart has pointed out, Charles Kennedy would be better entering the fray himself than calling for Labour big hitters, who are probably less appealing to the public.

Smart also points to the string of local council and Holyrood by-elections that can hardly give the SNP encouragement (but do look promising for the Conservatives).

The fact that some polls show a narrowing of the gap between Yes and No should come as no surprise to anyone.  Over time the number of don’t knows will recede and the polls will swing this way and that, back and forward – but the trend remains for a win by the No campaign.

Consider that the Conservatives have yet to announce what constitutional reforms they believe are good for the whole of the United Kingdom as a whole and then discuss with Labour and Liberal Democrats how the three parties might find some common ground (most likely on a process rather than a package), and the No camp is in the driving seat. Given that the budget has shown that the UK government dictates policy on issues such as pension reform and we can see that on many issues the Coalition owns the debate and can dictate it.

There is a great deal of time left to be positive and I predict we shall see more of this as the campaign concludes.

The SNP and Yes strategists know all of this and keep waiting for something to go their way: an errant government Minister here or an unpopular government decision there.

What we should therefore expect in the coming months is as appeal to bare-faced, flag-waving nationalism built upon the notion that Scots are hugely different from everyone else in the UK who subjugate them (which is a dog-whistle for “we’re better than the English and we’re treated unfairly”). Events such as the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, World Cup and Commonwealth Games will be used for such rallying calls. In other words, an appeal to the core vote with the hope that emotion might just tip the don’t knows their way on a low turnout.

It’s hardly positive stuff. In fact, it’s highly negative – to the point of being corrosive and divisive to the UK’s social union.

What will not help deal with this type of campaign is English sentiment, as presented by some newspapers and broadcasters, being shown to be getting fed-up with the “whinging jocks” and saying good riddance. That’s exactly what the SNP wants. Just as whinging remains a minority pursuit north of Hadrian’s Wall so too is the cliché of the Little Englander giving two fingers to Scotland.

The referendum promises to be highly destabilising and shall take a decade at least to repair, but first we need to win it. That requires confidence, cool heads and strict discipline. The referendum victory is ours to lose – and losing our nerve is the way to go about it.

24 comments for: Brian Monteith: Scotland’s No campaign must hold its nerve

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