Fibre Optics

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The underlying issue behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s refusal to debate the case for an independent Scotland with First Minister Alex Salmond is that it exposes an identity crisis at the heart of the No campaign.

Who is in charge of the case for No, and the content of its message?

Having had over a year to observe it in operation, albeit from the opposite side of the debate, it does seem clear that while Better Together may have a fully functioning office and plenty of dedicated and talented personnel in Glasgow, the No campaign is essentially embedded in the Westminster system.

Nearly a year ago, the Herald reported – in a story headlined “Cameron’s army of civil servants to defend Union” – that: “Whitehall’s full intellectual might is now engaged on what has been dubbed the Coalition’s ‘manifesto for the UK’.” (29 October 2012)

The report went on to say that: “The Treasury is spearheading the co-ordinated push with Sir Nicholas MacPherson, the department’s top civil servant, chairing a group of permanent secretaries”, and that 13 papers in different policy areas across government would be published – a process which is indeed underway.

While many in Scotland might observe that the “full intellectual might” of Whitehall is perhaps not what it once was – being the operation that has brought such absurdities to the referendum debate as mobile phone roaming charges and annexing Faslane after independence – it does nonetheless demonstrate that the case for No is being drafted and deployed in the many arteries of Westminster government extending from numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street.

The interesting thing is that – as well as being more than happy to brief the Scottish media that this is the situation (along the lines of the Herald story above) – David Cameron himself has never previously been shy about stressing his own leadership role.

As recently as June, the Prime Minister pledged to the Scottish Tory conference that he would fight “head, heart, body and soul” against Scottish independence.

And yet, despite all this, when it comes to the most elementary aspect of any election or referendum campaign in Scotland in the modern age – namely television debates – David Cameron now wants to remove his head, heard, body and soul from the process. Which apart from anything else does beg the question of what else he feels he has to contribute.

The identity crisis for the No campaign is that while the case against independence is clearly being manufactured in London, there is a refusal (ironic for a pro-Union campaign) to acknowledge the central role of Westminster in producing the core content of its message – even to the extent of trying to hide the Prime Minister away from fronting up the case for No.

It is an impossible contradiction, and there is really no way to reconcile these entirely different positions. And while the row about TV debates is an abstract one for the public in the overall referendum campaign, this contradiction does have real implications for the substantive debate between Yes and No.

Again, from my observation of the No campaign, I am struck by how little it has to say for itself in the absence of these UK Government papers, or the reports (of varying quality) from Westminster select committees, comprising MPs and Lords all of whom oppose independence.

As a campaign essentially preaching a dependency message to Scotland, it is perhaps in a sense appropriate that Better Together should itself be so dependent on Westminster and Whitehall. Logically, from a Unionist perspective, the No campaign should be shouting about the importance and value of this London-link, and therefore embracing David Cameron. But, politically, it spurns him – and for the very same reasons he is rejected by the vast majority of people in Scotland: we don’t agree with Tory ideology and policy, and we don’t vote for them.

The issue that is left hanging though is this. If the No campaign doesn’t think it is right for the Prime Minister of the UK even to be on the telly to debate the case for the UK, how much more wrong is it that someone so utterly unrepresentative of Scotland should be our Prime Minister in the first place?

And that does go to the heart of the real referendum debate – the right of the nation of Scotland to be run by a government of our choosing at each and every election.

In adopting an “except for viewers in Scotland” attitude to David Cameron in relation to TV debates, the No campaign has boosted the whole issue of who does and who should speak for Scotland – and therefore, unwittingly, the case for Yes.

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  1. DougtheDug says:

    Hiding David Cameron has an echo in the determined effort of Better Together to keep the Union Jack out of sight on their campaign trail. If it’s so good to be British why are they so ashamed to fly the British flag?

  2. Ani-C says:

    I am as yet undecided and have no interest in what David Cameron’s opinion so am glad that he isn’t going to take part in a debate. In my opinion, all independence debates should involve only those who actually will be voting.

    1. David Cameron is Prime Minister of the whole of the UK – including Scotland. Do you not think that he has certain responsibilities with regard to that political institution? As to whether the fact he has a vote in the referendum or not should determine if he should enter the debate – he already is interferring in the debate through the UKgov’s publication of white papers and doom-laden committee reports on Scotland, as well as making his own public pronouncements.

      And he certainly does have a powerful control of votes over reserved matters at Westminster that directly affect Scotland, such as welfare. Trying to make out that it is nothing to do with him and it is just a matter for Scots is I’m afraid the usual wilful attempts to muddy the waters and to draw attention away from the fact that most of the policy and spending (or not) in Scotland is directly under Tory control – from a government that Scots did not vote for.

  3. While I agree with what you are saying there is one thing which we in the Yes Campaign are forgetting and that is how well the No campaign is embedded in the population. I spent yesterday morning canvassing, and while there were those who were 100% for independence as well as the people who were persuadable, there were also a worrying number of people who had written off the while idea of Independence. The No campaign don’t have to do anything, those people will, if they turn up, deliver victory, while we have to work for the vote which we want to get out. It is therefore in the interest of the UK Governemnt to do as little as possible, while we need to get the troops out to persuade people of where their real interest lies, in a Yes vote.

  4. alharron says:

    Great article, Kevin!

  5. This is an excellent analysis of the situation Kevin, however I worry that it might only be of real interest to political anoraks like me. I don’t think that is the case, I hope that this issue gets as much publicity as possible and shows Cameron for the hypocrite and coward he is. I also take on board what Edward Andrews is saying above about some folk having already written off independence. Can I ask Edward, where and in what sort of area were you canvassing?

    1. In the Highlands near Inverness, New owner occupied estate.

  6. jdmank says:

    We’re spending too much time and energy buggering about whether he should or shouldn’t have a say , but he doesn’t have a vote some say, others say he should shut up,

    I say get that man up here pronto and sit him down in front of a camera and get him to attempt to explain (if he can) why when he has one mp in Scotland he is able to dictate to us just how much tax we’ll pay?
    who we will fight?
    and why he feels the need price your granny out of her home?
    when his future is secure in a grace and favour mansion (I don’t think it’ll be a bedsit do you?)
    This government should be hauled over the coals in Scotland instead of this semantics about whether Alex Salmond used strong language in his letter,
    If Cameron doesn’t want to face the public

    (he is the prime minister of Scotland whether we like it or not) he SHOULD butt out and stop his “army of civil servants” using OUR taxpayers money to fabricate a scare a month (more like a wee boo every so often)

    IT IS unacceptable that he should sit back and make bullets his wee doorman Darling fires
    and like I said (inelegantly )on another site its time to SHIT OR GET OFF THE POT DAVE!

    sorry about the language Bella but the naked arrogance of these people makes my blood boil

  7. Crubag says:

    “Who is in charge of the case for No, and the content of its message?”

    Which by implication means Alec Salmond is in charge of the case for Yes, and the content of its message?

    I think that is something the independence campaign needs to avoid. If it becomes about the SNP, then the potential pool of voters becomes too small to support independence.

    We should learn from 1745 – many Scots are pro-union, in an unspoken and unexamined way – and folorn hopes to march to London are not enough. To reach for another military analogy, this needs to be less Enemy Coast Ahead and more Marshall Plan.

    1. Kevin’s point is that if you take the Whitehall machinery out of the equation, you’re left with a No campaign without any arguments to put forward – everything they say is based on the reports being generated by Westminster government departments. Remove those, and the No campaign is voiceless, because it’s a one-trick pony. Therefore, it’s accurate to say that David Cameron’s government is in charge of the content of the No campaign’s message – Blair McDougall, Alistair Darling and their cohorts are little more than cheerleaders. There is no one standing up saying “here’s an alternative vision for Scotland within the UK. Even those pretending they support further devolution are not actually straying from anything Cameron or his government has said thus far.

      On the other hand, the case for independence is being made outwith Scottish Government departments. Yes, they do produce a fair chunk of stuff themselves, and the Scottish Government’s white paper in November will undoubtedly form a strong part of the case over the coming months; but they’re not the only people making the case for a Yes vote. One of the strongest voices at the moment is the Common Weal project, and some of that goes against current Scottish Government thinking. Holyrood is also not behind the calls for many of the more radical ideas being put forward as being possible in an independent Scotland. You could remove the Scottish Government’s input and you would still be left with a vibrant campaign, albeit a bit weaker. That’s the difference.

      1. Crubag says:

        I think that stems from an almost Napoleonic desire to have a single head on a single enemy to strike off, and then the battle is won. Which is how modern general elections are fought. Who slips up on which soundbite, or puts on a baseball cap.

        When it is the grassroots that are unconvinced, and quietly resistant to the new message, it is more like Napoleon in Russia searching for an enemy and losing the war.

        This needs to be something other than party politics as usual, or blood sport televised debates led by marmite (or horlicks) figures like Salmond or Darling.

        (Commonweal is actually quite well embedded in the SNP body – the Association of Nationalist Councillors are reported to have voted for the blueprint unamimously. That might run counter to current party hierarchy orthodoxy but may over time change attitudes in the leadership to higher taxes.

        That said, I don’t think the Commonweal blueprint is all that well thought through – it ignores how the Nordic countries really work. Would the Jimmy Reid Foundation really be campaigning for private ownership and management of the national health service, charges for visiting GPs, privatised ambulances, tax-payer funded private schools, or private ownership and management of your state pension contributions? Because that is the kind of thing that is done in Sweden for example… http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2013/02/02/swedish-welfare-state/)

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