Peter Duncan was Conservative MP for Galloway & Upper Nithsdale, Shadow Scottish Secretary and Chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party under Michael Howard and David Cameron.
Last week’s first serious skirmish on the upcoming referendum on Scottish separation from the rest of the UK has set out some interesting challenges for the Conservatives to face up to. Last year’s triumph in the AV referendum has given the party a taste for winning these battles – to win this one, we’ll need to show discipline, enthusiasm for the fight and an understanding of the post-devolution Scottish political dynamic. Our opponent, the SNP, has shown itself to be a world-class campaigning machine – our best chance of beating them in 2014 (or whenever the vote is held) would be sticking to my ten tartan rules for success.
1. Make the positive case for the Union
Don't talk Scotland down by suggesting that Scotland needs England. Don’t say that Scotland couldn’t make its own way in the world. It could – the question to be answered is whether it should. Scotland is perfectly capable of operating successfully as an independent country and Unionists should not be afraid to say so. However, we don't think it's in Scotland's best interests to end the world’s most successful economic, monetary, political and social Union, and with it lose significant influence on a worldwide stage. As Scottish patriots, we don’t think it’s in Scotland’s best interests, and as British patriots we don’t think it’s in the interests of the remainder of the UK.
2. Change the "no" option or consider accepting a third question
The people of Scotland overwhelmingly want more powers for their Parliament, and we Conservatives have been behind the curve on their expectations since 1975. Essentially, they support localism, which is totally consistent with the aims and values of the Conservative Party. The Scotland Bill does not meet that expectation, and we should make it clear that we do not see it as a line in the sand. Our aim should be to move towards something like Devolution Plus, as espoused by Reform Scotland. This could be as a third question (though there are good reasons for avoiding that eventuality). Or it could become "the new no". The "no" camp would significantly improve its chances if the status quo was moved from Calman (the proposals currently progressing through Parliamentary procedure) to Devo Plus. This must not become a choice between separation and "thus far and no further". Such a choice would be a gift to nationalists.
3. Put Scotland, not London, in charge…
The message that David Cameron (or Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg) are in charge and that Ruth Davidson (or Johann Lamont or Willie Rennie) are playing second fiddle is wrong and dangerous. By all means use Westminster MPs for Scottish constituencies (Margaret Curran, David Mundell, Michael Moore et al), but every time an English MP appears as a face of the no campaign, it plays into Salmond’s hands. I suspect London will have concerns that its Scottish offshoot does not have the expertise or experience to run this campaign unaided, but it will have to suck it and see.
4. … and don't dictate the terms from London
Alex Salmond won a massive victory in May 2011. He and the rest of his 68 MSP’s elected to Holyrood have the right to hold the referendum they want to hold – at the time they want to hold it. By all means argue our position in Scotland and put political pressure on him to change his mind on the number of questions, who gets to vote, who oversees the ballot etc. But don’t let these arguments originate in Westminster. We’ve been doing this for decades, and look where we are now! It will play into Salmond's hands. It's the Unionist strategy he would have written himself.
5. Speaking of Salmond, don’t make it personal
Unionists have to accept the fact that Alex Salmond is very popular in Scotland. He, not the SNP, and certainly not the argument for independence, won an unprecedented landslide victory in May because he was and remains head and shoulders above his competition. If we get personal and try to bash Alex Salmond, we will again have misread the electorate. He has significant weaknesses, not least of all a predisposition towards over-confidence, and he has more chance of tripping himself up than we have of doing it for him.
6. Get a campaign leader – quickly
The referendum on Scottish independence is fundamentally different from the AV vote in 2011. It is a concept that fires up ordinary people, not just political junkies. In all my years canvassing doorsteps across Scotland, I’ve never spoken to anyone who raised the voting system, but I’ve rarely spoken to anyone without strong views on the union – on either side. That strength of opinion needs a voice – a Scottish voice working to the Scottish party leaders – as a focal point for those supporting the union. And it needs one quickly.
7. Accept that political reality – Labour voters are the difference between winning and losing
Before starting any campaign, we need to identify how it will be won. The simple fact of life north of the border is that the Labour vote is much more important to be won than the Conservative one. The Tory vote is highly motivated on this issue more than any other – but the real challenge is to motivate the 30-40% of the electorate who would regard themselves as Labour (especially those among them who voted SNP in 2011 but don’t support independence). For that reason, the campaign figurehead needs to be a Labour one. I wouldn’t rule out Gordon Brown, who – as the 2010 election showed – remains bizarrely popular in Scotland despite the damage he has done (take it from someone who experienced it first hand in Dumfries & Galloway). Tory voters would hate it – but they’ll still vote no.
8. Don’t get distracted into portraying this as a pseudo EU referendum
Yes, Scotland’s monetary future and its external relations are important areas for debate, but please don’t turn this into a debate on Euro membership. That might well fire up Conservatives, but they are fired up already and there are sadly not enough of them to win the vote. And the “you’ll be all on your own and have to join the Euro” argument is more patronising than I’m able to put into words.
9. Use the right language
Really important, and vital if failure is to be avoided. It’s right to speak in positive terms, but that doesn’t include doing the Nationalists’ job for them. “Independence” is an inherently positive word, and it’s their word. I’m in favour of my kids being independent; I like being independently minded. Our word is “separation”. It’s no less accurate. We cannot and must not allow the debate to be framed in Alex Salmond’s terms. For him, and for too many others like him, independence and freedom are likable concepts and often used interchangeably. We should avoid them.
10. Fire up the Westminster Whips’ Office
I’ve always said the bigger threat to the Union was English not Scottish nationalism. The run in to 2014’s referendum will coincide with the period when plenty of Tory backbenchers will be battling for re-selection on new boundaries, whilst nurturing growing grudges at a lack of ministerial office opportunities. SNP copywriters are desperate for easy quotes from English Conservative MPs who fancy having a little-England snipe at Scotland. The Whips’ Office have a big part to play in keeping “voices-off” off.