Fear seen as key on Scottish independence
Worry is a political tool used by those who back and oppose leaving the UK
Alex Salmond makes his keynote speech at the SNP autumn conference in Perth, Scotland. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
The final minutes of Alex Salmond’s speech to the Scottish National Party had the air of a religious revival where, with hands outstretched, he urged his followers on. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” he declared, borrowing the words of John Lewis, a human rights leader during the dark days of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s Alabama.
His audience soaked it in, perhaps needing comfort and a renewed sense that victory can be won in the September 18th independence referendum next year.
For it is a confidence that has suffered blows: with a few exceptions, the opinion polls are showing that a Yes vote is unlikely; a few argue that victory is impossible.
Stating publicly what others are feeling privately, delegate George Fellows said: “I think this is the first SNP conference I’ve been to where I have detected a wee bit of uncertainty.” That doubt is felt in other ranks in the party. For months, the SNP’s top ranks have argued that those advocating a continuation of the union have tried to scare Scots with “Project Fear”. Pensions would wither, mobile telephone charges would jump, taxes would rise sharply, according to the negative vision of the future painted by the No campaign.
Scots may disagree on whether the road to self-government should travel as far as independence, but the majority believe in more powers for the Holyrood parliament. Up to now, it has been accepted that London would eventually offer guarantees that more devolution will come if they reject independence, though there have been no pledges to the effect so far.
Now, however, the Yes side has joined the No in playing on fears. Since Thursday, Salmond, his deputy Nicola Sturgeon and others have warned of a dystopian future if voters reject independence. “Scotland’s social security system will be dismantled. Scotland’s public services and universal benefits will be under threat. Scotland’s budget will be cut,” Sturgeon said. In Sturgeon’s reckoning the powers currently held by the Holyrood parliament – ones used, for instance, to follow a very different path on the National Health Service – will be shaved away.
Like all good threats, it has plausibility since there are some in Whitehall who bridle at the differences increasingly evident between London and Edinburgh. Equally, there are some who want to overhaul the “Barnett formula” – the rules that govern the share-out of treasury funds between London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont.
However, the Yes campaign is a broad church, encompassing those who favour distinctly left-wing policies and others who advocate low business tax and little regulation.
Faced with doubts about victory, the SNP looks back to the majority won in the Holyrood elections in 2011. That majority was not supposed to be winnable nor was it predicted. As it transpired, the SNP – recording the best result in its history – won 45 per cent, a superb outcome. But even a repeat of that would not be enough to win in September.
Furthermore, some of those who voted SNP did not do so because they support the party on independence. In fact, they do not. Rather they backed the party because they admired capable government.
For now, the SNP must spread its message. Privately, party members insist that they are getting “extraordinary” canvass returns from places such as Govan and Easterhouse in Glasgow. Districts such as this rarely vote in elections. If the SNP is right – and it is an “if” – then opinion polling results, no matter how consistent, are useless guides.
However, the danger is one of incoherence since it is no easy job to craft a message that will be equally attractive to those in Easterhouse and leafy middle-class districts in Edinburgh.
Since Thursday, the SNP has promised extra spending, cuts in energy prices and a block on welfare reform cuts; all the while committing itself to balanced budgets and still favouring Irish-style corporation tax rates.
Besides playing to the better sides of Scots’ nature, where all of Scotland’s people are equally nurtured, Salmond’s “if not now, then when?” message illustrates the other battle plan. Known privately as “the hangover strategy”, it will see Scots question themselves in the hours before September 18th, 2014, on the basis of the regret that they may feel afterwards if they say “no”.
“When the pages of books yet unwritten speak to generations yet unborn of this time and this place, of our Scotland, what is the story that they will tell?” asked the first minister.
The Perth rhetoric put renewed fire in SNP hearts. Next month, however, an independence white paper is due,where questions will need to be answered. It will mark a crucial staging post on the road to referendum day.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor