Danny Alexander’s article on the Independence Referendum in yesterday’s Sunday Times (£) was, for me, a frustrating read. If I’m honest, it was actually like nails being dragged down a blackboard. Full of language like damaging, devastating and divorce, t is absolutely not what we need at this stage of the campaign. He even brought in the spectre of not being able to sustain the NHS in an independent Scotland.
A poll published in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday showed a small but perceptible shift towards Yes. There are now only 7 points separating the two sides, with No having lost 3% in the space of a month. While I think John Curtice was over-egging the pudding, he is right to say that the pro-UK side needs to have a much more positive message.
Danny may well be right about the risks of independence but he’s not presenting his arguments in a way that encourages those crucial undecided voters to listen to him. The Yes campaign relies heavily on negative campaigning but it does it behind a veneer of a vision of an independent Scotland in control of its own destiny. People respond well to them and, whether we like it or not, they like Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. There is nobody on the pro-UK side that people warm to as much, and every time George Osborne or David Cameron sets foot in Scotland, I have to watch their every move from behind a cushion. And I am absolutely certain in my no vote.
Danny talked about the choice we face being of both head and heart. And then he gave us nothing to make our hearts fill with joy. A campaign against a proposition always has a tougher job because they have to deconstruct that proposition and say why it’s not a good idea, but they need to present these arguments with a rousing melody that connects with people. Being right is no good if you can’t get people to listen to you. You have to go to where they are at and show them how the UK can give them both security and more say over their own destiny. We need to show them that the UK actually does share their values and we need to show them that there is a strong future ahead of us within the UK. We’ve gone past the point, if it ever existed, when talking about divorce and filling a newspaper column with dire predictions was ever going to cut it. It might just hold on to your own support but it’s not going to bring in the undecideds.
It feels at the moment as if the Yes people are taking their lessons from Obama’s first presidential campaign while Better Together is taking its from No to AV. That is a big mistake. There were so many reasons for the failure of the AV proposition, not least that nobody really loved it. That doesn’t translate to the referendum because there are a substantial group of highly motivated people who support independence. And however flimsy the factual basis of their arguments, the Yes campaign is much better organised than Yes to AV ever was.
I’m not suggesting that we stop deconstructing the Yes arguments, because many of them just don’t stack up, but we have to persuade people from where they are, not where we are.
To be fair to Danny, he did top and tail his piece with some strong lib-demmery. First on what the budget had done for Scotland:
This week’s budget contained measures to secure the recovery by cutting income tax for people who work, supporting businesses who want to invest and rewarding savers. It provided strong support for crucial growth sectors in Scotland — oil and gas, Scotch whisky, manufacturing and exports. And we provided strong support for Scottish workers, by delivering on our campaign to increase the amount that you can earn tax free to £10,500 — delivering a total income tax cut of £800.
He could just have left it there without sledgehammering in that independence would “smash the foundation of our economic success.”
He concluded with a summary of Liberal Democrat policy on more powers:
Ever since William Gladstone first proposed “Home Rule all round”, my party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, have pioneered more power for Scotland. But we also understand that nationalism and separatism put barriers between people to the detriment of all. Liberalism tears those barriers down. That’s why our policies would support a move to an even greater transfer of powers to a Scotland within the UK should there be a No vote. This would include the allocation of tax powers so that more than half of what is spent by the Scottish parliament is raised in Scotland. That way ahead gives Scotland even more of the best of both worlds. More self-determination while staying Better Together.
Ok, but did we really need the nationalist bashing? What would have been wrong with saying something like: “Liberal Democrats believe in taking decisions at the lowest practical level. That’s why we’ve always supported more powers for Scotland, why we want the Scottish Parliament to have more say over what it does and the taxes it raises. We also want local councils and communities to have more power and more say in their affairs.”
Charles Kennedy was bang on last week when he said that the pro-UK campaign needed to be more positive. He could do with being a bit more explicit about what he thinks they should be saying. And then he needs to sit Alistairs Darling and Carmichael, Danny, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader and Nick down and tell them. For the sake of the UK, they need to listen. He does, after all, have form as one of the best political communicators of my lifetime. Better Together is in desperate need of an injection of wit and warmth and not much time to do it in.