By Paul Goodman
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For all one reads about Alex Salmond's mesmeric and talismanic powers, his position is fundamentally weak when it comes to the cause that his party stands for. The polls show that most Scots don't want independence. (A recent Mori survey found 38% of respondents for and 57% against.) His plan, therefore, is gradually to manoevre Scotland out of the Union without it noticing – hence his support for "devo max" (which the same poll found 68% support for). The counter-plan of those who want to stop him must therefore be to remind Scots of the core choice they must make about the future of their nation, and to win their support while doing so.
Michael Moore was doubtless right to tell the Commons yesterday that the Scottish Government does not have the power to call a referendum, which helps to explain why Salmond has been so hostile recently to the Supreme Court. The Coalition is therefore in a strong position to insist that the choice put to the people of Scotland is the one that really matters: in or out. It cannot achieve its aim without such an outcome. But since the future of the Union touches hearts as well as minds, the battle for it cannot by won by the reasoned pronouncements of judges. Salmond would like nothing better than to frame the coming battle for the future of the United Kingdom as one between Scotland the Brave, personified by himself, and the perfidious Sassernachs.
All obvious, one would have thought – but not obvious enough, apparently, for the Coalition last weekend. The media was told that the Scottish Parliament would be confronted with an 18 month deadline to hold a referendum: the Government apparently wants to avoid a poll in 2014, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. The Labour Party – without whose support a referendum is unlikely to be won – wasn't pre-warned. Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, didn't front. A startled Cabinet was briefed by the Minister in charge of the ploy, George Osborne. Salmond was bound to play to the gallery whatever the Coalition's decision. But the role of an English MP representing an English seat allowed him to do so with gusto.
Moore dropped the deadline during his Commons statement yesterday. But if the week's events to date have been a dress rehearsal for the referendum campaign, the main show could be curtains for the Union. The UK and Scottish Governments are now set for a war of manoevre. The former's main instrument will be law: it will insist that Salmond can't legally set any binding referendum, and try to get the motion and timing it wants. The latter's chief weapon will be sentiment: Salmond will present himself to grievance-vulnerable Scots as the Braveheart of our age, seeking only to protect a proud nation from the wiles of George Longshanks, sorry Osborne, the pale-faced schemer from south of the border – and thus crank up support for independence.
The Chancellor is the best strategist that the Conservative Party has – and an infinitely classier one than his critics claim. He won't have moved last weekend without working closely with Danny Alexander, his Deputy, a Scottish MP who sits for a Scottish seat and knows the Scottish score. But the campaign to out-fox Salmond cannot be led from 11 Downing Street. And it won't be successful without the enthusiastic participation of Scotland's second party, Labour. This self-evidence truth will horrify some Conservatives. It didn't so do as recently as last spring, when senior Tories worked hand-in-glove with Ed Miliband's party during the triumphant effort to save first past the post and stuff the alternative vote.
That superlative campaign should be the model for the one to preserve the Union. It needs to be an alliance of all parties and none: Johann Lamont, Labour's leader in Scotland, said yesterday that "the referendum should be one straight yes or no question on Scotland leaving the UK", which offers hope that the party won't be snared by the lure of devo-plus. It needs the usual smattering of sports stars and celebrities and arts figures – anti-Sean Connerys, so to speak. It also requires the unambigious presence of politicians. (The pro-AV lobby tried to run a campaign without them, and look what happened to it.) That means Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy, for example, as well as Sir Menzies Campbell and Annabel Goldie. It will even need to feature Gordon You-Know-Who.
Above all, it must be built and run in Scotland: step forward, please, a Scottish Matthew Elliott, if there is such a person. This isn't to say that it cannot touch other parts of the Union. After all, the union with Northern Ireland is at stake in any referendum on the union in Scotland, and will be a powerful element in the coming campaign, since many Scots who don't care for the English care very much about Ulster: if you don't believe it, glance back at what powered unionism as a force in Scotland for so long. It also has a formidable challenge in England. New Labour's devolution legacy is unjust. English nationalism is stirring in its sleep. A ConservativeHome survey of Tory candidates during the last Parliament found that they were "barely Unionist".
More Tory MPs quietly – and in the case of party activsts not so quietly – look to party advantage. They realise that without Scotland and the tally of Labour MPs it sends to Westminster, the Conservative Party would have an advantage in England greater than that currently given to Labour by the national distribution of the vote and the current arrangement of constituency boundaries. David Cameron's view is different: he doesn't want to be remembered as the Prime Minister on whose watch Scotland was lost. He is right to believe that such an event would have consequences. What would happen to Britain's independent deterrent? To our armed forces? To our place on the UN Security Council? To Northern Ireland – with consequences for the mainland?
There will be no Union flag if the saltire is torn out of it. The campaign to stop it happening can't be led from 11 Downing Street, or even Number 10.