Bernard Jenkin is Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, is a former PPS to Michael (now Lord) Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland and is MP for Harwich.
Now is not the time to criticise the No campaign in the Scottish referendum, but it is worth reflecting what has been going wrong and what might be done to redress the situation in advance of polling day. This is written with some experience of previous no-campaigns. I set up North East Says No which reversed a huge lead for a proposed North East Assembly and turned it into a four to one victory for the no-campaign. I also helped to set up No2AV, and advised it throughout. Despite offers from those involved in those campaigns, few if any lessons from those campaigns have been learned.
First, most of us non-Scottish MPs have failed to rise to the occasion. This is not a private debate for Scots to settle for themselves. Treating this matter in that way has played into the hands of the SNP who have cast Westminster in the role of a distant and disinterested institution that cares little for Scotland. This is far from the reality. It is has been a mistake to try to keep the English out of the campaign.
That is why I have organised a motion which is printed on the Commons Order Paper today to give MPs of all parties the opportunity to express their support for continuation of the Union. English Conservatives in particular should be ready to explain that we believe in the Union, contrary to what might be construed as in our electoral interests. The Conservatives would have a far better chance of securing a good majority at the next election without Scottish MPs in the mix, but the Union with Scotland is in the national interest, and that is far more important than any party consideration.
Second, by putting Westminster politicians front and foremost in the no-campaign, the argument has been polarised and personalised in exactly the way that Salmond wished. Labour is a discredited force in Scotland – having lost the last two Scottish general elections. Where are the businessmen and non-aligned folk who should have been fronting the campaign? In the last few days, they should be invited to speak out for the jobs they sustain and for those who depend on their company pension schemes.
Third, while a no-campaign can win by being unremittingly negative (witness both NESNO and No2AV), the shroud-waving and doom-mongering from Westminster, rather than from an effective campaign, has been totally counterproductive. It is long overdue that the main party leaders should join together in a concerted appeal to the Scots to vote no, based on a positive case for the Union. They should be sharing a joint platform, to demonstrate that this issue is above party politics. It is inexplicable that still this is not happening, suggesting that voters can only see a great issue through the lens of Westminster tribal politics. And they should stop being negative about each other and make the positive case for the Union. Better Together has so far failed to live up to its name.
A positive case for the Union should include recognition that devolution in Scotland has lessons for the rest of the UK; and that the North of England shares many of the same concerns about distance and detachment from “the Westminster village”, which only forms of devolution and decentralisation can address.
Fourth, we should be pointing out that since the Government has no plans for Scottish independence, this is a huge jump into the unknown. I originally recommended to Downing Street and to George Osborne, in particular, that the government should have produced first a consultation paper, and then a White Paper, setting out clear policy of the UK Government in the event of a Yes vote. This should have been presented to Parliament, debated and approved by the House of Commons. We have had since January 2012 to do this.
This should have involved a pre-referendum negotiation with Alex Salmond, so that there was no argument about what the UK government was going to do as a consequence of a Yes vote. This advice was comprehensively ignored. The Cabinet Secretary told my committee on Monday that this and contingency planning was actually banned by the Government. This now makes Whitehall look complacent. It allowed Salmond to rubbish the small amount of work that has been done (eg. on the currency) and to ignore the warnings. This means that the result of the referendum will not reflect a comprehensive assessment of the consequences of leaving the UK. These will only be considered in the event of a yes vote (which is still the less likely outcome).
Finally, in the event that we win a “no”, particularly if it is less decisive as hoped, we must expect a delicate period of negotiation as the new “devo-max” arrangements are put into place. Again, these rushed, on-the-hoof promises will have consequences for England and the rest of the UK, but this can none the less be positive, because it will force us all to engage with the question about how England is governed in relation to the other parts of the UK. This has been neglected for too long. There must be no more reactive policy initiatives. Parliament should establish a proper UK Constitutional Convention, which engages the best brains and experience, to plot the UK’s survival.