Much ado about nothing in my view. Personally, these launches do little for me. The strange launch of Yes Scotland, since ridiculed as the Declaration of Cineworld, and problems with its campaigning website on which twitter followers were presented as supporters were uncharacteristically dismal by comparison with the SNP’s usually slick presentation. Given these difficulties, any intelligent person would have thought that the “No” campaign would have learned from these errors and would project a far more professional appearance. You might have also assumed that it might have something positive to say – or, failing that, at least something new. Maybe even something about the kind of future Scotland we can all look forward to?
I have to confess I find it moderately amusing that we now have “Yes” and “No” campaigns before we even know what the question is!
I have little interest in the theatrical, carefully stage-managed launch of Better Together. However, I have a great deal more interest in what the campaign’s message is, how it hopes to campaign and in the inter-party dynamics that could well prove the campaign’s undoing (BBC Scotland have already reported this morning that Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives don’t want to be filmed together).
Yesterday I took a look at the Better Together website, which is very good. Very good only in the sense that it reveals everything you might need to know about the campaign’s core message, its values, its campaigning style and the levels of professionalism we can expect from it.
Let’s take a look at the website. From a purely aesthetic point of view (I run a creative arts company and my partner is a graphic designer, so I know a little) it lacks impact. It’s quite easy to navigate but suffers from an inescapably amateurish feel, as if it was designed by a 10-year old: you’re left asking the question “is this all there is?” It lacks so much as an imprint, which is hardly reassuring in respect to the campaign’s levels of professionalism.
But a rather ordinary looking website and hints of unprofessionalism are relatively insignificant. What I’m really interested in is the message. It’s slogan is the simple “Join us for a stronger Scotland, a United Kingdom”. That’s fair enough. The site also proclaims that “people from all over Scotland agree: ‘we get the best of both worlds as part of the United Kingdom’”. Well, clearly we don’t all agree, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this referendum. As for what “the best of both worlds” actually is, I don’t know. As a Liberal Democrat I think I can speak with most of my party when I say I’m not supportive of the status quo. I don’t think we’ve got “the best of both worlds”, whatever that is supposed to mean. We have a devolutionist arrangement that is far from ideal, in urgent need of reform and a Union that is somewhat dysfunctional. By all means Better Together should present a case for continuation of the Union, but please do not present it as the most positive of political arrangements. It is not. It is frankly unfit for purpose in the 21st century.
Curiously, as if stung by nationalist accusations of negativity, Better Together is keen to put forward its “positive case”. In fact, this is its central message. So what does it have to say; what positive future does it have in mind for Scotland? Not very much, it seems - just a few lines on prosperity, security and interdependence. The first thing that struck me was how thin the argument was, and how there seemed little in it that was actually positive. The points they make are insultingly patronising and simplistic (the NHS was created by a Welshman – a vast oversimplification if ever there was one – this is evidence of people from across the UK working collaboratively and, therefore, that the Union is best). The so-called positivity is dependent upon negative assumptions about what Scottish independence would actually mean, such as “uncertainty, instability and barriers for our businesses” or that an independent Scotland would by nature be less multi-cultural or “culturally enriched”. The arguments for Scotland’s continued presence in the Union fail to convince on any level, especially as the SNP’s commitment to the armed forces is vastly greater than the UK government’s (let’s not forget the devastating impact the coalition’s policies have had on Scotland’s military resources) and that the SNP is far more committed to retaining links with both the rest of the present UK and the EU than it’s being given credit for here.
So, not so much a positive case as more of the same tired arguments, only not as well developed. This simplistic “case” might convince some people, but probably few over the age of 7 who have a modicum of political understanding. I expected more, both in terms of an intellectual base and positive outlook. All in all, a dismal contribution for what passes for debate and a missed opportunity to challenge the “Yes” campaign directly on some of its key claims.
The rest of the website is quite interesting too, and says a great deal about the nature of Better Together. The film on their website, entitled “The Best of Both Worlds” speaks to a number of Scots who support the union. Their reasoning is interesting. “We’re guaranteed schools and hospital care” under the status quo, says one, as if such things would inevitably be a thing of the past post-independence. “I don’t want to feel, like, in a few years that if I go down to England I feel like I shouldn’t really be there because I’m not part of the UK” says another. Hmmm. I go to France quite often and never feel that I shouldn’t be there. I would suggest if she doesn’t feel she can belong anywhere other than where she lives she really needs to change her worldview and broaden her horizons. “I’ve been British for 71 years” states another. Erm, that’s not an argument. Others are keen to show off just how patriotic they are – they love Scottish music and culture, read Burns’ poetry and like tartan (sigh!) - so much more patriotic than those nationalists! If this introductory video is anything to go by, we will be subjected to unionists and nationalists attempting to outdo each other in the patriotic stakes for the next two years. So much for constructive debate and reasoned discussion. There was not a single coherent argument put forward in the four minutes and ten seconds the video lasted – you would have thought Better Together could have found someone with a token argument rather than expressions of misplaced fear or a pride in British identity.
Elsewhere on the Better Together website is the amazing revelation that “the Union is a Scottish invention”. Well, not all Scottish inventions are necessarily good so I don’t quite grasp the point; the fact that the Darien scheme was a product of Scottish minds doesn’t make it any more credible. I did read the piece, by a supposedly respected Scottish historian I've not heard of named Colin Kidd, who insisted that “Unionism was invented in the 1520s...in the work of John Mair of Haddington" as an alternative to “the English Empire”. That’s not quite true, as by the 1520s England had virtually no colonies abroad other than Calais. Mair certainly put forward the idea of a union of Anglo-Scottish crowns as a remedy for political instability, but he was not the first to do so and would have almost certainly hated to be considered the inventor of unionism. He was, after all, a humanist, a logician and a theologian. Other, more likely suspects, for the origins of pro-Union thinking must by Kidd’s logic also include Edward I or the Scots king David II – who in 1363 had to be prevented by his own parliament from pursuing union with England.
It is a fundamentally pointless article, but serves a useful purpose: it demonstrates Better Together’s willingness to re-write history in its own image. And this is Better Together in a nutshell: negative, backward-looking, dependent on questionable interpretations of history and with a dated view of Scotland and Scottish identity reminiscent of the predominant attitudes of the 1970s.
What I find most worrying is that Better Together attempts to steal the “positive” high ground from the nationalists, while actively utilising the same tactics they decry. The nationalists are negative, they say, but negativity runs right through Better Together’s message like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock. Better Together also claims that it wants to be “a home for the information [voters] need to make the biggest decision in Scotland’s history.” A praiseworthy ideal indeed, were it true. Oh, those nationalists don’t want the reasonable debate we’re offering, claims the “No” campaign. What utter rubbish, and a completely disingenuous claim.
I’m not a nationalist. Neither am I a unionist. At the moment, I am inclined to support independence because I am a liberal and I think of the two options being offered that independence is the one that will most effectively facilitate the creation of a liberal society. I want to see a real debate that engages with Scottish people, informs and educates, stimulates reasonable discussion and empowers people to make an informed choice. That we’re not seeing this is partly down to the tactics of Better Together. We don’t need tit-for-tat debates about which side is the most patriotic. We also don’t need the descent into two distinct tribes – nationalist and unionist – that we’re currently witnessing. What we need is an open and honest political conversation stripped of perjorative terminology and unnecessary scaremongering.
What Better Together have so far patently failed to do is put forward a picture of a Scotland’s future that might actually resonate with the public. Big questions such as “what will the status quo mean for Scotland’s political future?” remain unanswered and is one key reason why I could not vote “No”. What would help the “No” case is an ability to describe a future Scotland in which people might actually want to live.
There are fundamental problems for the Better Together campaign. Their essential message is that Scotland needs more of the same, and the only thing that unites the three parties leading it is opposition to independence rather than a shared vision for the future. Ultimately, therefore, it must be unsurprising that its message will be tinged with negativity. Clearly Better Together poses key problems for the Liberal Democrats, which is why Willie Rennie yesterday wrote a piece in the Scotsman reasserting his opposition to a second question on the ballot paper and his fears that the referendum outcome could be decided by courts. His arguments against a second question are to my mind short-sighted and unnecessary, his insistence that no respected expert supports it plainly wrong and the reference to the US Presidential election of 2000 misleading (this was, for those who forget, the case of the “hanging chads” that rendered a number of ballot forms unreadable by electronic machinery). He's defending his position because he realises that not supporting an option that would actually provide the best opportunity for Liberal Democrats to achieve their objectives will open him up to a fair amount of criticism. I think, having discussed the issue with him, that he genuinely believes his logic but the timing of the article, which contains nothing new, suggests he's aware of the risks he's taking and is getting in an early defence. If he helps secure the union but finds himself unable to be the "guarantor of [constitutional] change" he professes to be, his leadership will ultimately be a failure: he will simply have reinforced the status quo the party is theoretically opposed to.
What Willie Rennie is perfectly aware of is that, in a coalition of the negative, the Liberal Democrats’ distinctive voice on further devolution and fiscal federalism will be drowned out by the louder, more cynical, voices of the Tories and Labour. Quite why he wants to identify himself and the party so closely with Better Together I’m not sure, because there are huge political risks involved. Rennie, for all his positive talk, surely recognises that a party of 5 MSPs cannot guarantee constitutional change: if we failed to achieve any progress in eight years in government in Holyrood or in coalition in Westminster we’re not likely to be in a strong position to deliver in the aftermath of 2014. I feel he and the party are missing a trick here: we should be taking every opportunity to express our distinctive vision and distance ourselves from the Tories and Labour, rather than allowing ourselves to be publicly identified with unionist arguments we plainly don’t accept.
Former Lib Dem councillor Alex Dingwall posted on facebook this morning:
So today sees the launch of the NO Campaign, and I'm confused to see those who support a federal position backing BetterTogether rather than the DevoPlus group. Willie Rennie set up the Home Rule Commission to "map the next constitutional steps after the Scotland Bill and provide an inspiring and positive vision for the future of our country."
Our party's own press release said "the status quo is inadequate” but isn’t the status quo exactly what Scottish Liberal Democrats are being asked to back by the BetterTogether Campaign?
Indeed. Supporting the status quo is not a position I, as a liberal, am prepared to take. I also would have serious concerns about Better Together, which on the evidence so far simply appears a cynical and tribalistic campaign of negativity.