Did you ever see that 2005 European Champions League final when Liverpool came from 3-0 down to AC Milan to win after extra time on penalties? I also recall some match on a Danny Baker football video (was it a QPR game?) when a team were 4-0 up and lost. My own team, Hibernian, were once 4-2 up against local rivals Hearts two minutes into added time and the game finished 4-4 three minutes later – it felt like a defeat!
When I look at the referendum in Scotland I rather feel like I’m watching one of those unexpected outcomes all over again as the Better Together campaign manages to fritter away its significant lead. While this is certainly the place to examine just what’s been going on it certainly isn’t the time to lay blame; what’s more important is to try and identify strengths and weaknesses and seek to use the former and bolster the latter.
The first thing to say is that I am utterly convinced that the No campaign has won the economic arguments hands down. Time and again, the Yes Campaign has been left unable to answer the most basic of questions on currency, pensions, public finances and taxes – resorting then to bluff and bluster that is often contradictory. What No appears to have failed to do is make those economic issues matter enough to Scottish voters that they will not take the risk of voting Yes.
The threats to businesses whose trade is chiefly with the rest of the UK have simply not translated into concerns about jobs. Nor has the issue of something so basic as currency been fully appreciated in respect of interest rates, mortgages and house values. Therein lies the clue of what still needs to be done about convincing voters that voting Yes is a huge gamble that they would not normally take. It has to become personal.
If the economic case is being made but not shoring up support for No, it is not because it is too negative. Rather it is because it is coming from people that the voters do not trust: politicians.
So when PMQs is cancelled and the three party leaders travel up to Scotland – choreographed for maximum impact but devised separately so as not to offend their supporters – it is unlikely to make a great deal of difference. It looks like yet another PR stunt. They created a rod for their own backs – never in Scotland enough to make it appear normal, but unable to stay in London for fear of looking like cowards. (The same could be levelled about attitudes to northern cities outside party conferences.)
What we are witnessing in Scotland is, in part, like the wider disconnect with the Westminster village that UKIP has been exploiting to its benefit for the last few years. In this case the beneficiary is the SNP. Here lies another clue. The campaign to save the United Kingdom has to become anti-politician – and the only way to do that is to start using real people with real personal stories – and real business leaders who can explain why they fear for their companies and their employees’ jobs.
It is no coincidence that the unionist vote is firmest amongst the older generations; it’s not just because of historical experiences of solidarity, it is also because pensions matter and they are not convinced an independent Scotland will honour them.
The Scottish Conservatives established at the end of last week that of the 30 public sector pensions the SNP had only costed how much it would need to fund four of them. Four! These are the sort of details that the No campaign has to get out and expose in the short time it has left.
The sharp fall in share values at the beginning of this week – wiping £2.8bn in value off Scottish businesses (ironically including 6% of Stagecoach, famed for its SNP-supporting founder Brian Soutar) – cost the equivalent of a whole year’s tax revenues from oil. The catastrophe that cities like Edinburgh and Aberdeen face if businesses relocate or shrink needs to be explained in graphic terms and it should come from the mouths of business leaders.
All of this is negative campaigning, and I make no apology for it. Scots have a reputation for being canny and need to know that the impact will be personal, not just happen to someone else.
Then there is the need to crank up the positive, emotional argument. This is where the appeal to the UK being greater in the sum of its parts has to be made. The argument that the UK is open, that it is indeed the best country in the world, that others try to emulate it or wish to come to it, has simply not been put. Alex Massie wrote brilliantly about this, as did Marcus Buist this week. Others like Rory Stewart with the story of the cairn need to be used to show how much people do value being British.
Positive feelings about being British and Scottish – or vice versa – have been eroded over the last few decades, mainly by the ridicule and satire of critics going unchallenged. It is vital to reverse that diminution over the remaining seven days by pulling out all the stops, using celebrities and sports figures that have more genuine respect that political figures. The referendum in Quebec showed it is never to late to puncture the momentum of an opponent and reverse the trend. Just like Liverpool pulled off that great victory against AC Milan.
There are some crucial polls due to come out in the next few days which may give further cause for alarm or some reassurance that the swing to Yes supporters is too soon or is transitory. We shall see.
What we certainly know now is that the referendum has everything to play for – but it will be winner takes all. If the No campaign wins, and I still believe it can and will, it must ensure there is no repeat in a few years’ time. This is a once in a lifetime moment – the SNP’s own words. We must consign the horror of nationalism, which has left so many Scots feeling intimidated and threatened, to the annals of history. Never to be revived again.