Financial Times: Wanted: a shared vision of Britain to sell to go-it-alone Scots

11 March 2020

By Sebastian Payne

Not since Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe was tried for attempted murder in 1979 has British politics been gripped by such high-stakes court proceedings. Alex Salmond, once Scotland’s first minister and the leading campaigner for independence, is facing charges of sexual assault. The four-week trial, which may air the Scottish National party’s dirty laundry in public, has begun just as the prospect of “Scexit” is back. Scotland appears to be shuddering towards another referendum which could see it leave the UK’s union, prompted by a rebellion against Brexit north of the border. The issue was ostensibly “settled for a generation” in a 2014 “Indyref” vote. But the Scottish nationalists did not have to wait long to inject new life into their cause. The 2016 vote to Leave the EU — in which 62 per cent of Scotland voted Remain — produced new fractures and reignited the constitutional debate.

Campaigners for the union were complacent last time around, assuming a “safety first” message on the economy would deliver victory — until a shock poll emerged in the final stages with Yes to independence ahead. Only a last dash impassioned intervention by former prime minister (and ardent Scottish unionist) Gordon Brown delivered a 55:45 victory for No.

Next time, avoiding Scexit will be harder, even if the SNP’s embarrassment over Mr Salmond’s trial, where he has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and a series of other scandals, fades. Last month in the northern English city of Newcastle, unionists met to explore how to save the UK. Hosted by These Islands, a forum founded to heal divisions sown in the Indyref and Brexit campaigns, their discussions were imbued with a sense of urgency.

How could Britishness be made to feel relevant after the Brexit polarisation? Strategists, pollsters and politicians who attended all recognised that they need a fresh emotional message. Dry arguments about currency and trade may not cut it in an age in which the heart triumphs over the head.

Unionists have yet to find this elusive compelling story, however. Mr Brown stomped across the stage with his giant hands firmly in his suit jacket, delivering a keynote speech about how “empathy and solidarity” naturally leads to “co-operation between different nations”. The National Health Service, he argued, is “one big British idea”.

Douglas Alexander, a former Labour cabinet minister and central to the last Indyref campaign, grasped the challenge. “We need to get a lot better at storytelling,” he said. “Turning up with facts is like turning up to a knife fight with a teaspoon.” Last time around, the Better Together platform was nicknamed “project fear” because of the dire economic consequences of leaving the UK. “We can’t scare people into staying in the UK, it’s ever diminishing returns. I can’t see it winning again,” one donor told me.

Unionists at least know who they need to convince. The Brexit reconfiguration has seen voters in the 2014 Scottish referendum switching sides based on their 2016 Remain-Leave preferences. Of pro-UK Remain voters — the lawyer living in an Edinburgh townhouse for example — pollsters YouGov found 27 per cent now back independence. Unfortunately for pro-UK campaigners, just 6 per cent of pro-independence Leave voters — a fisherman in Aberdeenshire, for example — have switched to supporting the union.

Economist Kevin Hague floated a slogan for targeting the Remain voters who will ultimately decide whether Scexit happens: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Unionists can argue: “We understand you didn’t want Brexit but leaving the UK’s single market would be even worse.” Can this rational “head” argument work against the nationalists’ promise to rejoin the EU?

Unionists tend to feel uncomfortable discussing identity. The whole idea of Britain is to envelop and so dilute the coarser feelings of nationalism in England as well as Scotland (and Wales). Six years after Mr Salmond’s near victory, a shared future has become even harder to sell. And unless campaigners can find an emotional message to convince themselves, they have no hope of convincing Scottish voters who are giving up on the UK.

You can access the full article on the Financial Times website here.

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