How a polite message from Canada inspired the campaign against Scottish independence

No campaigners hope to get a draw in the “emotion” game

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“Non merci” said the poster behind Pierre Trudeau, the former Prime Minister of Canada, as he spoke against independence for Quebec during the 1980 referendum campaign.

The two words leapt out at Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, as he watched a video of the Trudeau speech at 2am one night in February.

He judged that “No Thanks” was just the message he and his colleagues in the Better Together campaign were searching for as they tried to head off a Yes vote in the referendum on Scottish independence in September.

 “No Thanks” seemed a perfectly-pitched riposte to Alex Salmond from a campaign that had rightly been accused of being too negative, even by opponents of independence such as Gordon Brown. “No Thanks” showed respect for the other side and did not attack them for having a different view – no bad thing when one in five Scots admits they have fallen out with a family member, friend or work colleague over independence.

Mr Alexander took his “No Thanks” slogan to the Better Together board, chaired by Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor. They shared his enthusiasm and road-tested it with focus groups, where it played well. It has now replaced “Better Together” on the No campaign’s literature and, if the opinion polls are right, appears to capture the current public mood. “No Thanks” may even have encouraged “silent” No voters to come out.

Even Mr Alexander, not known for his sunny optimism, could afford a smile when a woman came up to him after church last Sunday and said: “I’m a No Thanks voter.”

The polls average out at 43 per cent for Yes and 57 per cent for No. So Mr Alexander and his fellow No campaigners can be cautiously optimistic that they will win on September 18.

Yet the No camp knows that, unlike Mr Salmond, it needs to win well, as Mr Darling conceded in an interview as part of our week-long series on Scotland this week. A narrow vote against independence would settle nothing. “Salmond can lose but win,” one Conservative minister admitted. The Scottish National Party leader would pocket the “devolution plus” measures already on offer from those he scathingly calls “the three Westminster parties”. And then he would engineer another referendum and probably win it second time around.

So his opponents would like to get as close as possible to a 60-40 per cent win. Despite the heated debate in Scotland, the polls have moved very little. There was a swing towards Yes earlier this year after George Osborne’s nuclear weapon – no currency union after independence – boomeranged when Mr Salmond skilfully added it to his long list of threats and bullying from London. Yet the No camp believes this tactical loss led to a strategic gain. The row over whether Scotland could keep the pound emboldened some business leaders to come out against independence, despite alleged pressure on them to keep out of the debate by the SNP (which it denies).

 

Unanswered questions on the economy, currency, pensions, whether people would be better off, Scotland’s membership of the EU and Nato appear to be playing on voters’ minds. Yes camp leaders admit they will not overtake the No campaign until referendum day, a tacit admission they have not secured the momentum they would have wanted by now.

So it seems that Mr Salmond will have to rely on emotion if he is to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. His pitch that Yes is the patriotic choice will be reinforced during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later this month, in the hope that it could prove a game-changer. Having not yet won over enough heads, it appears that the First Minister will pull at people’s heartstrings.

Mr Salmond’s foes do not underestimate him. He has confounded expectations that the SNP could never win a majority in the Scottish Parliament or secure a referendum, and he could do so again. But No campaigners hope privately to get a draw in the “emotion” game by arguing that you can be a patriot without being a nationalist. They hope that will deliver a big enough overall points win, as they are increasingly confident of winning the “evidence” battle of what independence would mean.

The final shape of a new Scotland would depend heavily on negotiations involving the Edinburgh and London governments between a Yes vote and “independence day” – 24 March 2016, the 309th anniversary of the Act of Union. In practice, I’m sure the inevitable horse-trading would take longer. UK ministers admit privately that, in the event of a Yes vote, everything would be on the table, which is not what they say in public. Despite a statement by the three Westminster parties that a breakaway Scotland could never enjoy a currency union, it could yet do so in return for SNP dropping its pledge to evict Trident nuclear weapons, which the London government would be desperate to avoid. “Of course, there would have to be deals,” said one Tory cabinet minister. “A Yes vote would only be the start of a process. The end game would come much later and no one knows now how Scotland would look.”

By 18 September, the picture of an independent Scotland will still be so fuzzy that it seems a majority of Scots will politely say “No Thanks” to taking a leap into the unknown.

Read more: What our leaders can learn from Big Phil Scolari

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