We are now just days away from finding out whether the people of Scotland have decided to leave the United Kingdom, or, to put it more accurately, have decided to swap rule from Brussels via Westminster for direct rule by Brussels. With opinion polls on a knife-edge and the ‘Yes’ camp leaving so many important questions unanswered, it is astonishing that the Better Together campaign have managed to get their tactics so badly wrong.
Allowing the Labour Party to dominate and dictate the terms of the Better Together campaign was a vital miscalculation. The Conservative Party brand may be severely damaged in Scotland, but the fact remains that at the 2010 general election, 413,000 people voted Tory, just 80,000 fewer than voted SNP.
A year later, the Scottish Conservatives missed an important opportunity during their leadership election when front running candidate Murdo Fraser proposed winding up the party and replacing it with a centre-right Unionist Party, which would normally support the Conservatives at Westminster and even have Ministers within it, but would be a distinct party, free to develop its own policies in Holyrood, based on the principles of economic liberalism, social conservatism and patriotism, offering a vibrant alternative to the various shades of socialism of Labour and the SNP, as well as a counterbalance to Alex Salmond’s vociferous nationalism.
In many ways, this would have been a return to the situation between 1912 and 1965, where the Unionist Party was Scotland’s main centre-right political party. Two of its MPs, Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, went on to become Prime Ministers of Conservative governments.
The Scottish Conservatives rejected Fraser and instead chose the young, inexperienced, and largely unconservative Ruth Davidson as their leader. Davidson has only been a member of the party since 2009, and under her stewardship it has remained an organisation centralised, financed and managed from Central Office in London. Meanwhile, natural Conservative supporters in Scotland often vote tactically, supporting Labour or the Liberal Democrats to keep out the SNP or Labour. The only options open to Scottish voters are how far to the left they want to go.
With the Scottish Conservatives muted and ineffective, the Labour Party was allowed to take the driving seat in the Better Together campaign. The battle lines were now clear. Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign would focus on Scottish patriotism and a sense of national self-confidence, bigging up the benefits of being able to keep its own oil revenue, whilst attacking unpopular policies imposed on Scotland by recent Westminster governments: The Iraq War, the banking crisis, the cuts, the bedroom tax, with special emphasis on Trident.
The Better Together campaign, headed by former Chancellor Alistair Darling, has focused on hard economics and practicalities: Currency uncertainty, economic uncertainty, the impact on jobs, pensions and defence.
What Mr Darling has not done is state the patriotic case for the Union, which has brought peace, stability and prosperity to both sides of Hadrian’s Wall for the past 307 years. Nothing has been said of the great Scottish politicians, statesmen, military leaders, businessmen, writers, poets and musicians who have made enormous contributions to making Britain a stronger, freer and more cultured place down the centuries, or of the proud track record of Scottish regiments in fighting tyranny operating as part of the British armed forces.
When we look into Mr Darling’s background, it is easy to see why. Some 40 years ago, when Darling had a beard that matched the colour of his eyebrows, he was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, whose publication, Black Dwarf, he would sell outside railway stations.
In 1977 he joined the Labour Party, and in 1982 was elected to the Lothian Regional Council, where, faced with the prospect of budget cuts, he supported large rate rises in defiance of Margaret Thatcher’s rate-capping laws, and even threatened not to set a rate at all. His close ally, the late firebrand Labour MP Ron Brown, was thrown out of Parliament for placing a placard on Mrs Thatcher’s despatch box saying ‘Hands Off Lothian Region’ while she was addressing the House.
Darling loved it at the time, and it was left to the trade union leader Bill Squires and a certain George Galloway to persuade him to back down from his kamikaze strategy, pointing out that thousands of workers, from home helpers to teachers would lose their jobs, and that council leaders, including him, would be sequestrated, bankrupted and possibly imprisoned if he continued in this manner.
Labour leader Neil Kinnock visited the council and tried to calm it down. He singled out Darling as its lead troublemaker, and is alleged to have declared ‘I never want to see that bearded Trot becoming an MP’.
Darling smartened up his image – the beard was gone and sharp suits replaced the sandals and jeans of his younger days, and he was elected to Parliament in 1987, but whether his core values changed much is another matter. The financial crash of 2008 happened on his watch as Chancellor, and there is much irony in him partly nationalising some of the banks – in the old days he called for the total nationalisation of all of the banks. Certainly he cannot be held to blame for global financial markets, but he can be held responsible for the clumsy, muddled response and the failure to tackle the huge mountain of public debt that was increasing every minute of every day during his tenure.
Furthermore, in May 2009 he was caught up in the expenses scandal when it was revealed that he had changed the destination of his second home four times in four years, allowing him to claim for the costs of his family home in Edinburgh, and to buy and furnish a flat in London including the cost of stamp duty and legal fees. Darling stated that ‘the claims were made within House of Commons rules’. This may have been so, but it was shady behaviour coming from any senior politician, let alone the serving Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Darling was damaged goods. His rhetoric may have mellowed with time, but there’s little to suggest he has become a staunch British patriot with a love of Monarchy, flag and army in the years since.
Then there’s the issue of Darling’s personality. He has twice been voted Britain’s most boring politician. His speeches are dull, monotone and academic in nature. The Better Together campaign required someone of the passion and vigour to take on Salmond. In a bid to improve his bland, uninspiring image, Darling hired former TV newsreader and radio presenter turned media trainer Scott Chisholm in the run-up to the television debates with Salmond. Chisholm, a burly New Zealander with a thick, cowboy moustache, coached Nick Clegg in the lead-up to the 2010 election debates, and prepares his political clients to communicate in a way that many voters would find totally insulting. He tells them to ‘pitch it at a 10-year-old’, and warns against using words that viewers will have to process to understand, as they will then miss the next six words they say. He goes on to quote the psychology professor Albert Mehrabian’s theory that success is based 55% on image, 38% on how you sound and just 7% on what you say.
Darling should have reflected on the fact that, come 2010 election day, Cleggmania turned out to be about as powerful as Henmania, and that many people found Clegg condescending and shallow during the debates. In other words, there is a very big difference between speaking to people in clear language they understand and patronising them. Looking the part does matter, but voters, especially in marginal constituencies where elections are won and lost, aren’t as stupid as Chisholm seems to believe, and the substance of what you say counts for a lot more than 7%.
The first debate was more Salmond’s loss than Darling’s victory, due to the former’s smugness and poor answers to questions about the currency. The second debate was a different story, and it’s widely accepted that Salmond had the upper hand over an ill-prepared and sometimes bad-tempered Darling. The only moments of moderate passion from Darling came when he talked about the NHS, but even here, Darling was on shaky ground. The Scottish NHS has always had a degree of autonomy, and since 1999 has been an entirely devolved matter.
The last few weeks have seen Better Together resort to desperate measures, with Gordon Brown announcing policies on the future of the Union as though he’s still in office, and David Cameron reversing his policy of staying out of the debate. The lack of passion about the historic and cultural successes of our Union is shameful, as is letting the Yes campaign off the hook on so many key questions, from currency usage, to taxation plans, to borrowing costs.
Within days we will know whether the Conservative Party’s timidity, and Better Together’s poor strategy, has led to the permanent break-up of the United Kingdom. And even if Scotland rejects independence, we know it was allowed to be led to the brink by a dispassionate, sterile No campaign.
By Marcus Stead