Salmond’s blueprint launch: a very good week for No

November 30th, 2013

The SNP are making the same mistakes as Yes2AV

One simple and obvious truth: in order to win a referendum, you need to win the support of more than half the people casting a vote.  This may be elementary politics it was something that the proponents of AV nonetheless failed to grasp, or at least, failed to act on (somewhat ironically, given the nature of their cause).  A second truth about referendums: those opposed to a proposition don’t have to have a consistent alternative; they simply need to convince the public that the idea being voted on is a bad one – other votes on other alternatives can come later.

The publication of the Scottish government’s case for independence was always going to be a major milestone in the road to the referendum next September.  That it was, but not for the reasons that the SNP intended.  The 670 page-long document is full of information where it doesn’t need to be and short of detail where it does.

For example, why the SNP chose to make a pledge to extend childcare a key centrepiece of the independence launch defies explanation: it’s such a parochial pettifogging policy.  Is this really why nations declare independence?  Apart from the fact that Holyrood could already implement it if it wanted to, there’s a more serious political drawback to the inclusion of specific policy proposals: it will put off those who disagree with them.

Let’s go back to that first truth: Yes needs 50%+.  To do that, the SNP needs to attract a fair amount of support from people who voted for other parties in 2011 (because by no means all SNP voters are pro-independence).  Blending constitutional proposals with specific policy initiatives blurs that line and is more likely to put people off.  It’s uncomfortably close to one of the SNP’s less attractive habits: equating support for the SNP with support for independence with Scottishness itself.

The reason put forward is that people care about bread-and-butter issues like health and education (and childcare).  Indeed they do but Holyrood already has substantial powers in these areas.  Debates over policy in these areas is the stuff of general elections, not referendums.

By contrast, convincing the Scottish electorate to break a union of more than three centuries is more likely to succeed if it’s not seen as a dangerous leap in the dark.  To that end, Yes is going to have to find more credible answers to the currency questions, and whether Scotland would be a member of the EU (and on what terms); questions which are interlinked.  Better Together is likely to make a great deal of the wishful thinking on both matters: that everything will be all right and everyone else will fall in line with the blueprint’s assertions.

Again, No can win simply by creating enough concern as to the risks those unanswered questions contain.  The Australian referendum on whether to declare a republic was lost in no small part not because Australians wanted to retain the Queen as head of state but because the specific alternative was seen as worse.

By narrowing the support base through making their case via domestic policy rather than sweeping vision, and by failing to reassuringly answer crucial questions about the pounds in people’s pockets and purses, Salmond and Sturgeon have given Better Together an easy route to victory (though of course they still have to navigate it).

That said, there may well be a consolation prize.  The White Paper launch felt less like a prospectus for independence and more like an election manifesto.  I wonder if Tuesday marked not the launchpad for the 2014 referendum but the starting gun for Holyrood 2016.

David Herdson