Where’s the vision from the ‘No’ side? Opponents of Scottish independence may be doing too little too late

The problem for defenders of the Union is that every time they raise their game, Alex Salmond will say they’re panicking

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If Scotland votes Yes to independence in next week’s referendum it will be the most volcanic domestic political event since 1945 and arguably since well before that. And if the outcome is No, it would probably be close enough for supporters of independence to call for another referendum before very long. If England elects a Conservative government at Westminster next year and Scotland is still part of the UK, the campaign for separation would likely be rejoined with verve once more. On many fronts this is an episode that has only just begun.

Historians will look back at the tumultuous campaign in Scotland and pose many questions. One of them will be more pivotal than it seems: why was the referendum called precisely when it was? The timing of referendums often determines outcomes. Historic choices are made partly because of fleeting circumstances.

The context of next week’s referendum could not be worse for those who want Scotland to remain part of the UK. The choice is being made in a country with only one Conservative MP, and it comes at the end of more than four years of a right-wing Conservative-dominated government at Westminster, with a general election looming in which a part of England might possibly elect a wholly unconstrained Conservative administration.

In trying to be positive, the Better Together campaign argues that the UK as a whole can be a great force for social justice. As they do so, the bedroom tax is imposed from Westminster, instigated by one of several cabinet ministers on an ideological crusade to the right of Margaret Thatcher, unimpeded by the fact that the Conservatives won no overall majority at the last general election. There is no point in this electoral cycle, or recent electoral cycles, when the temptation in Scotland to break away would have been stronger than next Thursday.

I can understand why David Cameron instigated the referendum and agreed the specific date. When Scotland elected a nationalist government, the issue of independence became urgent. Given that every opinion poll suggested a majority in Scotland opposed independence it must have been tempting for Cameron to resolve the issue with a historic flourish.

But understanding what happened does not fully explain why it happened. It was obvious then that referendums are risky ventures and this one unusually so. All the deadly ingredients were in place: a Prime Minister instigating a referendum that he could not campaign in directly without losing votes, a toxic governing Conservative party still in thrall to a form of Thatcherism loathed in much of Scotland, a sclerotic Scottish Labour party viewed too complacently by Ed Miliband, and an opponent in Scotland more politically developed, experienced and shrewd than the three youthful leaders at Westminster. For someone who has “leaderly” qualities, Cameron has a tendency to run into problems at key moments – from the last general election to his recent failed bid to veto the new EU president. Whatever the result next week, he is running towards a mountainous problem.

The problem now for the Conservative wing of the No campaign was illustrated by George Osborne’s interview on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Osborne was good on Scotland, conciliatory in tone, emphasising that he and the other parties want to devolve more significant powers. Osborne is a much improved media performer, managing to convey his authentic sense of humour and occasional non-tribal political curiosity. But in the second half of the Marr interview Osborne moved on to how the Conservatives plan to fight the general election – and the tone changed. If you don’t like Europe, only we are offering the country an in/out referendum! If you support the bedroom tax, only the Conservatives plan to cut these benefits! Some undecided voters in Scotland might have noted positively the offer of more power and then caught the tone of the second half and thought: “Help! Time to break away.”

More widely there is a risk for the No campaign that its every move is viewed solely through the prism of suddenly dramatic polls. Labour is hiring a train on Thursday to send up an army of Westminster-based MPs to Scotland. A timetable for greater powers for Scotland will be published. Miliband and Gordon Brown will address a rally, a unique joint appearance. The election expert John Curtice told me months ago that Brown was by far the most effective campaigner at framing messages in ways that would appeal to “Don’t knows”. He becomes even more important in the final days. But each time the No campaign raises its game Salmond will pop up to declare the other side is panicking, and he will be right.

This accurate observation does not and should not obscure the validity of his opponents’ messages or wholly undermine the sudden eruption of political energy from a previously complacent Westminster.  From the No perspective, the warnings about the currency are genuine and not an act of provocative machismo. As someone who followed closely the last government’s anguished debates about the euro, I am certain Ed Balls is sincere when he argues that currency union requires political union. When Tony Blair wanted to revive his pro-euro campaign after the war in Iraq, Balls took his political life in his hands by warning of the dangers for politically independent countries sharing the euro. Blair did not speak to Balls again while he was Prime Minister. Osborne has always opposed UK membership of the euro. As Chancellor, he is not going to give the go-ahead to currency union and political separation in the UK.

There is also a more idealistic message for the No campaign to deploy. Every nightmarish international conflict from this dark summer arises from disputes over rigid boundaries. In Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq people are being killed partly over territorial disputes. In the UK, for all its flaws, we live without boundaries while allowing for distinctiveness. As part of the distinctiveness Scotland escapes most of the public-service reforms wreaking havoc in England. Such border-free diversity should be a cause for some celebration. But it might be too late, and this small island will acquire a troublesome boundary too – one that would change everything for those living on either side.

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