I am in the interesting position where I can help bring about the downfall of the United Kingdom. OK, it’s only one vote. But the way things are going, it could be a crucial one.
As a blow-in from Northern Ireland, a bit of me thinks that I don’t have the right to take part in the referendum in September; but like every voter in Scotland, the outcome is likely to have a profound influence on how I live my life. I have an interest in the outcome.
Up until recently I didn’t think the referendum was going to be such a big deal. My default position was an assumption that people would vote no to change. As human beings we worry about the unknown. When push comes to shove, we tend to go for the safe option, and the status quo is usually that. “Better the devil you know.”
But the Scots might prove to be the exception that proves the rule. The Yes camp has played a clever game. It is relentlessly positive, talking up Scotland and its potential; flattering the voters that they can do better for themselves by taking control of their own destiny. The sense of alienation from London helps. There is no mandate for the coalition from the Scottish electorate, and it’s difficult to see anyone in the current government Scots can relate to, never mind have any confidence in. Danny Alexander just does not do it.
A cabinet of toffs was never going to cut much ice north of the border; and every time one of them opens his mouth another raft-load of voters head into the arms of the Yes campaign. Poor George Osborne cannot help sounding patronising, condescending and out-of-touch. He is. And David Cameron, for all the protestations about his Scottish roots, is out of his depth in the visceral world of Scottish politics. He does not speak like the Prime Minister of a united kingdom, but the leader of a faction.
For the Yes campaign, its biggest strength is also greatest weakness: Alex Salmond. In two administrations he has displayed a degree of competence that has surprised many who saw him as a factional and divisive figure. But his power is held in check within the current constitutional arrangement. Unfettered, who knows where Salmond might go? Hubris is his biggest enemy, and there is a suspicion that he is susceptible to it.
Surprisingly for a politician, he recognises his Achilles’ heel. His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is taking the lead for the SNP. And, at this weekend’s party conference, Salmond made a big play of the fact that in an independent Scotland, Labour could command a majority in the parliament (not that the prospect of a Labour administration under its current indifferent leadership is any prospect).
Salmond’s refusal to debate with anyone but Cameron is also working well for him. Like the king in a game of chess, he position is best secured by the other pieces dominating the game. The less he is played, the stronger he becomes, and the more potent are his interventions.
Little literature has come through the door thus far into the campaign, but the first leaflet from the No campaign – a letter purportedly written by a housewife telling me why to vote no – was enough to have me voting yes. Completely lacking in subtlety, it played on fears about the future of the pound in an independent Scotland. The leaflet failed the acid test of good communication. It completely lacked authenticity. It was probably written by an apparatchik with no understanding of the real world.
We all know that authenticity is a value lacking in most political communication. It’s hard to tell the truth when the truth is not what people want to hear. But there are ways of saying things that do not patronise.
Quite simply, the biggest threat to the Union is a No campaign that is incapable of articulating a compelling reason to retain the United Kingdom. Better Together is becoming a contradiction in terms.