Reading events since the 2014 referendum is like a Rorschach test: there’s an element of people seeing what they want to see. The nationalist sees their movement on the cusp of historic success. Their opponent instead sees it splintering under the pressure of its own contradictions. We’d all do well to look a bit closer and to recognise that, beneath the media narratives, there’s a more complex picture.
I don’t think there is the likelihood of another referendum in Scotland in the immediate future, partly because the SNP are simply not ready, intellectually or organisationally, to fight one. It also suits both the SNP and Conservative governments, for a constitutional stalemate to continue. Though both would deny it, they are in political symbiosis. For Boris Johnson and the Tories, prolonging this fight over flags and borders overshadows Scottish Labour’s stubborn, and unsuccessful, attempts to make Scottish politics about choosing a more effective devolved government. For the SNP, playing identity politics allows them to stay in power without the political risk of testing independence support which, for reasons discussed below, is likely soft.
It is possible though that expectations are raised so high, or that Nicola Sturgeon’s faction loses control of her party to such an extent in their current civil war, that we find ourselves in unexpected territory. However depressing some may find it, Scottish politics is unlikely to centre around education, health or poverty any time soon, so it’s worth evaluating how the landscape of the constitutional debate has changed since 2014.
Because of Brexit and the weakness of UK Labour in recent years, analysis of the debate about breaking up Britain often centres around what has changed on the pro-Union side of the ledger. This has meant that developments which cause significant challenges to the nationalist cause have been overlooked.
The most important thing that has happened to the nationalist side since 2014 is that time has passed. All governments have a sell-by date, even those able to distract from their failures as skilfully as the SNP does. Events overtake ministers, parties get tired and complacent, promise is not met, voters become bored. On the backbenches the number of disappointed parliamentarians eventually outnumber those with hope of being appointed. Grudges grow. Fissures form.
With open warfare between the different factions in their civil war, the SNP no longer look like the formidable and disciplined message machine they were in 2014. Unless Alex Salmond succeeds in deposing his protégé, they will still have a skilled communicator at the steering wheel, but behind her an impatient party has wandered all over the political map.
Take the issue of currency, which the nationalists rightly see as a bruise that has not healed. One day Andrew Wilson and adherents to his Growth Commission attempt to win points for seriousness by warning that we face up to a decade of austerity and the insecurity of using another country’s currency. The next, Tim Rideout and the sect peddling Modern Monetary Theory tell us we will move immediately to a new currency, ban compound interest rates and print money to dig ourselves out of our deficit.
As things stand, austerity and sterlingisation versus a new currency and Weimar economics is a hypothetical. In a referendum it becomes a choice that the SNP leadership are forced to make. Whichever faction’s position is discarded is unlikely to go quietly. For a campaign opposing the SNP both positions offer endless narratives about economic risk: do you want your boss to change the value of your salary in your contract? Will you be paid in one currency and pay your mortgage in another? Will your business face new transaction costs? In 2014, the SNP understood the potency of these arguments, which is why they were willing to absorb the damage of refusing to say what their plan B was on currency. Now the same personalities who told us that anything less than a shared currency with the rest of the UK would be bad for Scotland have to sell us on what they know is second best.
The currency issue touches on another important change for the nationalist side. The Yes offer was one which attempted to combine change with continuity: get rid of all the things you don’t like (the nasty Tories, austerity, etc) but keep the things you do like (your currency, being part of a bigger economy through EU membership, etc). This is where Brexit, which has so far been a tactical gift for the nationalists, becomes a strategic trap. No longer can they use the shared economic frameworks of the EU single market to shrug off the economic impact of disintegrating from the more tightly-woven UK single market. While Brexit negotiations continued, SNP ministers offered a “wait and see” answer to the question of what their harder border with England will look like. It is a question that can no longer be avoided and one that cannot be answered without exposing a deep contradiction: how can building borders be both the problem and the solution for Scotland?
In 2014 the nationalist side were able to use independence as a catch-all solution for every problem. It was pure populism, offering a home for every protest vote. Two developments make that more difficult today.
The first is that the Scottish Parliament has significant tax and welfare powers to collect and redistribute money. Any grievance based on social injustice can be turned against the SNP government. There is simply no need to leave the UK to create a more generous welfare state. So far the SNP have been lucky as Scottish voters are largely unaware of where these decisions are now made, but any campaign to remain in the Union will educate voters on this, in response to any attempt by nationalists to use devolved responsibilities as a reason for leaving.
The second is that the public spending argument has been turned on its head. In 2014, the nationalist campaign seized on an unusually good year’s GERS figures to argue not just that Scotland would choose more socially democratic choices than the austerity being pursued by the Tories, but that we could afford them. Today the oil revenues which created the statistical platform for that argument have evaporated and, for all its other faults, the Conservative government is taking a far more liberal approach to public spending. Combined with the fiscal impact of either of the currency choices the SNP need to decide on, it is now the Yes side who are offering greater austerity. For ‘I’m not a nationalist’ and “utilitarian nationalist” supporters of leaving the UK, this cognitive dissonance is too much and they often find themselves simply denying basic facts.
Since the 1980s, SNP strategy has combined social democratic principles with populist politics. If economic trends have undermined their ability to make a social democratic offer, political trends make populist politics less attractive. With the implosion of Trumpism, and the SNP now at war with organs of online disinformation they created, smarter party strategists will recognise the risk of being portrayed as post-truth propagandists. Do they really want to fight a referendum denying their own Government Chief Economist’s public finance statistics? We saw the risks in this approach to the big economic questions of independence recently when the whole SNP machine went on the attack against a London School of Economics report on the trade costs of Scexit, only for it to emerge that the author of that report did the modelling the First Minister used for her own analysis of the trade costs of Brexit.
The final change for the nationalist side has been the hubris that has infected every corner of their movement as a result of recent opinion polling. There was always a tendency to arrogance, too often bordering on aggression, from nationalists utterly convinced of the inevitability of their cause. Partly this was strategy. The SNP’s main message has always been momentum: that Scotland is on an inescapable path to leaving the UK. This has been a strength – a nation supposedly on the march is an interesting story – but it is also a weakness: if you believe your political cause is inevitably going to win, you don’t have to do the hard work of creating a detailed case that survives contact with your opponents.
A bump in opinion polling for leaving the UK is doing nothing to discourage this trait. If those who think they hear destiny knocking looked closer, they’d see that of the 22 polls conducted in the past year, fewer than half have the nationalist cause convincing more than half of the electorate (before don’t knows are stripped out). It’s a creaky lead. In most polls support for leaving the UK is hovering just above the 45% they achieved in 2014. The nationalist side has been flattered by a lack of confidence on the pro-Union side.
For all the reasons set out above, the SNP would be deeply foolish to believe they have earned their current confidence, or that they have a concrete platform for leaving the UK. But if the changes above represent such a challenge for the nationalist cause, why has there been such a dip in confidence in their opponents?
In simple terms, the Union cause has all of the ingredients but almost nobody to cook them.
The pro-UK parties, already battered by a landslide defeat at Holyrood in 2011 followed by an earthquake at Westminster in 2015, have seen their confidence shattered by the victory of Brexit nationalism in 2016.
The Scottish Labour party had already lost a younger generation in 2011, then 2015 saw it lose its elder statespeople too. The trauma of this, and the Pavlovian need to dispatch leadership and staffers, has left the party hollowed out and lacking the confidence to make an argument for what we believe in. Only Gordon Brown remains, still slugging away, but with new leadership both in the UK and Scotland, and righteous anger in the party at how the SNP have governed, there is hope that Labour might be up for the fight again.
The Conservatives appeared to have engineered a post-2014 recovery based on opposition to Scottish nationalism, but then a different stripe of nationalism under Boris Johnson took control of their UK party, their offer disintegrated and their charismatic leader departed. The current Prime Minister lacks the political subtlety of David Cameron. Cameron stubbornly refused to step into traps set by Alex Salmond, stressing that the campaign to remain in the UK was being led from Scotland by Alistair Darling. By contrast, it seems like every week there is a story briefed about some clever Downing Street wheeze which is going to secure Scotland’s place in the Union. The pro-UK side is still on balance more likely to win, but it would be in spite of Downing Street’s constant stick-a-union-jack-on-it schemes.
Brexit should stand as a cautionary tale about the costs of erecting borders and the risks of following populists who value emotional appeals more than evidence and analysis. It will take a different and more confident pro-Union campaign to make that case. A UK government pursuing Brexit can hardly use their own mistakes as a premise. While individual Conservatives will play an important role, their party is less able to reach the undecided voters in the middle and is better placed to motivate core voters.
If spokespeople can be developed, in many ways an argument that brings together both evidence and emotion is easier to make than it was before. The pro-UK side can own the issues of the moment:
Around the world we have seen the cost of following nationalists who appeal to emotions and tell us to ignore experts. Brexit stands as a warning of how creating new borders costs jobs, especially as we know three times as many Scottish jobs rely on trade with the rest of the UK as with the rest of Europe. We should remain in the UK because it means more money for our NHS and more jobs. The last few years have been tough enough without more cuts, costs and chaos. With power in the Scottish Parliament over taxes, benefits, schools, public transport and the NHS, shouldn’t we get on with the job of making things better rather than building a new border with England and changing to an unknown currency?
Labour is ideologically well-placed to make the case that this is where the centre ground of the constitutional argument lies: moderate, democratic, liberal, in favour of being inside both Europe and the UK. However, the party’s recovery will take time and it cannot make the argument alone. The pro-Union side needs to build it at the same time as creating an organisation that cares more about reaching undecided voters than arguing with nationalists.
There is a practical need for a broad-based campaign in any referendum. Without one you cannot legally spend money in the final few weeks. While in 2012 we saw parties uniting, this time we are more likely to see activists and arguments coming together.
A campaign to remain in the UK will need to equip a cadre of activists to be its organisers and communicators. Politics has changed fundamentally. Campaigns are more distributed, relying far more even than in 2014 on supporters being equipped to communicate within their social networks. Central campaigns are as much content creators as they are competitors trying to get their message out on the mainstream media. Circumstance means that the pro-UK side can’t rely on heavy-hitting household names, but on balance, facing an increasingly arrogant SNP machine, it is better to be a creative insurgency.
There’s one other intriguing potential change in the debate. When setting up Better Together we came to a realisation that no matter how hard we tried we would never be the most interesting campaign. The break-up of one of the most significant countries in the history of the world was always going to attract more interest than the continuation of the status quo. That may still be the case, but now there is another narrative that is taking hold that is almost as dramatic: the decline and disintegration of the SNP.
Despite all of the above, the most important feature that hasn’t changed is that the debate is still dominated by two vocal tribes, with opinions as firmly fixed as the flags on their social media profiles. The campaign that wins is the one that ignores the shouting and is able to have a conversation with the people who aren’t as sure as they are. This is where the campaign which is less strident, and which says it is ok to have doubts, still has an advantage over the side which loudly screams “believe!”
Blair McDougall was head strategist for the 2014 Better Together campaign. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, Notes on Nationalism, here: https://notesonnationalism.substack.com