Westminster accord needed to increase Scottish powers
How to save the referendum campaign for the unionists
by John Nugée
Tue 22 Apr 2014
In the campaign for the Scottish independence referendum in September, it is hard to disagree with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, that the SNP has so far made all the running. The pro-independence Yes campaign has built up substantial momentum.
It is fairly easy to see why. A message of change, with all its promise of a new beginning, is inherently more powerful than the message of the status quo. One does not need to be among society’s less advantaged to feel that life could be better with a change of circumstances, that the grass is greener on the other side.
But there is a still stronger reason why the defenders of the union, the Better Together campaign led by Alistair Darling, have not found their message easy to get across. The fundamental problem of the pro-union side is that they have no authority for anything they say. Salmond can say, ‘Vote for me and I will do X, Y and Z.’ But Darling cannot: He has no constitutional position to promise anything at all.
The result is that only Salmond can describe what greater powers Scotland will get if the electorate votes for him. Although a Yes vote is, in reality, more of a step into the unknown, Salmond can present it as delivering the more certain of the two outcomes. A No vote may lead to greater devolved powers – but then again it may not, and even if it does, no one has any idea what those new devolved powers might be.
To remedy this, an all-party campaign for the union is required, with the power to make good on its promises. Westminster must play a central role.
What is needed is a trilateral agreement among the three main UK parties that, if Scotland votes to stay in the union, it will be offered a defined list of extra powers.
Only then can the unionists argue two important points.
First, a Yes victory means that the Scots will get independence and may or may not keep much of what they hold dear (the Queen, the pound, the BBC, the armed forces, the university system, the financial system, the National Health Service).
Second, by staying with the union, they will keep all they hold dear and will also get a set array of extra devolved powers.
And then the unionists can start to give positive reasons why Scotland should stay in the UK. They can start to claim that a No vote delivers certainty and aspiration, whereas a Yes vote delivers uncertainty and isolation.
This would be a major about-turn – in effect a declaration that the Better Together campaign so far, with its emphasis on warnings of what will happen if Scotland goes it alone, has proved too negative and not sufficiently compelling. That message is important – there are consequences of voting for independence, and not all are favourable – but it needs to be leavened with a more positive argument for retaining the union.
If this is not done, England may find it is sleepwalking towards a future it does not expect and will not like. The Westminster politicians do not have long left to keep their country together.
John Nugée, a former Senior Managing Director of State Street Global Advisors, is a Member of the Board of OMFIF.
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