Danny, please listen to Charles Kennedy before you write about the Independence Referendum again

st Andrews flag saltire scotland Some rights reserved by Fulla TDanny Alexander’s article on the Independence Referendum in yesterday’s Sunday Times (£) was, for me, a frustrating read. If I’m honest, it was actually like nails being dragged down a blackboard.  Full of language like damaging, devastating and divorce, t is absolutely not what we need at this stage of the campaign. He even brought in the spectre of not being able to sustain the NHS in an independent Scotland. 

A poll published in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday showed a small but perceptible shift towards Yes. There are now only 7 points separating the two sides, with No having lost 3% in the space of a month. While I think John Curtice was over-egging the pudding, he is right to say that the pro-UK side needs to have a much more positive message.

Danny may well be right about the risks of independence but he’s not presenting his arguments in a way that encourages those crucial undecided voters to listen to him.  The Yes campaign relies heavily on negative campaigning but it does it behind a veneer of a vision of an independent Scotland in control of its own destiny. People respond well to them and, whether we like it or not, they like Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. There is nobody on the pro-UK side that people warm to as much, and every time George Osborne or David Cameron sets foot in Scotland, I have to watch their every move from behind a cushion. And I am absolutely certain in my no vote.

Danny talked about the choice we face being of both head and heart. And then he gave us nothing to make our hearts fill with joy. A campaign against a proposition always has a tougher job because they have to deconstruct that proposition and say why it’s not a good idea, but they need to present these arguments with a rousing melody that connects with people. Being right is no good if you can’t get people to listen to you. You have to go to where they are at and show them how the UK can give them both security and more say over their own destiny. We need to show them that the UK actually does share their values and we need to show them that there is a strong future ahead of us within the UK. We’ve gone past the point, if it ever existed, when talking about divorce and filling a newspaper column with dire predictions was ever going to cut it. It might just hold on to your own support but it’s not going to bring in the undecideds.

It feels at the moment as if the Yes people are taking their lessons from Obama’s first presidential campaign while Better Together is taking its from No to AV. That is a big mistake. There were so many reasons for the failure of the AV proposition, not least that nobody really loved it. That doesn’t translate to the referendum because there are a substantial group of highly motivated people who support independence. And however flimsy the factual basis of their arguments, the Yes campaign is much better organised than Yes to AV ever was.

I’m not suggesting that we stop deconstructing the Yes arguments, because many of them just don’t stack up, but we have to persuade people from where they are, not where we are.

To be fair to Danny, he did top and tail his piece with some strong lib-demmery. First on what the budget had done for Scotland:

This week’s budget contained measures to secure the recovery by cutting income tax for people who work, supporting businesses who want to invest and rewarding savers. It provided strong support for crucial growth sectors in Scotland — oil and gas, Scotch whisky, manufacturing and exports. And we provided strong support for Scottish workers, by delivering on our campaign to increase the amount that you can earn tax free to £10,500 — delivering a total income tax cut of £800.

He could just have left it there without sledgehammering in that independence would “smash the foundation of our economic success.”

He concluded with a summary of Liberal Democrat policy on more powers:

Ever since William Gladstone first proposed “Home Rule all round”, my party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, have pioneered more power for Scotland. But we also understand that nationalism and separatism put barriers between people to the detriment of all. Liberalism tears those barriers down. That’s why our policies would support a move to an even greater transfer of powers to a Scotland within the UK should there be a No vote. This would include the allocation of tax powers so that more than half of what is spent by the Scottish parliament is raised in Scotland. That way ahead gives Scotland even more of the best of both worlds. More self-determination while staying Better Together.

Ok, but did we really need the nationalist bashing? What would have been wrong with saying something like: “Liberal Democrats believe in taking decisions at the lowest practical level. That’s why we’ve always supported more powers for Scotland, why we want the Scottish Parliament to have more say over what it does and the taxes it raises. We also want local councils and communities to have more power and more say in their affairs.”

Charles Kennedy was bang on last week when he said that the pro-UK campaign needed to be more positive. He could do with being a bit more explicit about what he thinks they should be saying. And then he needs to sit Alistairs Darling and Carmichael, Danny, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader and Nick down and tell them. For the sake of the UK, they need to listen. Better Together is in desperate need of an injection of wit and warmth and not much time to do it in.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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15 Comments

  • paul barker 24th Mar '14 - 1:46pm

    While I take Carons points about the tone we adopt it really worries me that so many Scots voters seem to beleive that Independence can be acheived with no real disruption in their lives.
    The legal situation seems to be clear : if Scotland leaves the UK then It leaves the EU too. There are a group of EU states already worried about their own possible breakaways who would veto a Scottish application to rejoin in order to discourage their own separatists. The list would include Belgium, France, Spain & Italy.
    Currency Union is a non-starter, that means a new Scots currency, outside the EU.
    I reaaly worry that many Scots voters are sleepwalking into Independence with no idea of the likely results.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Mar '14 - 1:59pm

    I think the most important thing is that Danny feels free to say what he believes. I wouldn’t have done the nationalism bashing either, but I’m more concerned about authenticity than I am about small differences in beliefs.

  • Frank Booth 24th Mar '14 - 2:20pm

    Danny belongs to a coalition that plainly doesn’t share the values of most people in Scotland. Scots want to get away from the Tory rule that people like Alexander are perpetuating. The only person who can save the Union is Ed Miliband by presenting a different vision of Britain to that of the coalition that is hated in Scotland.

    It’s a rather terrifying thought given how many voters consider Miliband ‘weird’ and his inability to connect so far with them. But I’m afraid he’s the Unionists’ only hope. A rather chilling thought.

    The best members of the coalition (be they Tories or Lib Dems) can do is keep quiet.

  • After a particularly slight piece on “the English attitude to Scottish independence” on Today this morning I had a brief exchange on Twitter with a couple of people who thought people outside the media in southern England really don’t care and a few more who said they do. I live midway between London and Glasgow and I care. I’ve had exchanges with pro-independence Scots who objected to my desire not to “lose” Scotland. They assumed I meant that England would cease to “own” Scotland. I meant “lose” as in losing a friend or a relative who moves to the other side of the world.

    Then I was catching up on the Commons science and technology committee’s Voice of the Future 2014 event last week. Liam Byrne, in a mostly reasonable session on opposition science policy, got all doomy when asked about the likely effect of a vote for independence. It would be a “disaster” for Scottish science, he opined, which currently holds its head high in the UK science community. He had a good point about an interruption in EU science support funding, but he seemed to think that there would be no money left (where have I heard that before) because the supply lines from UK funding bodies would be severed. He seemed incapable of imagining that Scotland would be able to organise that kind of thing from its own funds.

    This careless cackmindedness is far too common south of the border, and I hear similar things wafting down from Better Together. Danny Alexander’s piece showed more free thought than he usually is allowed/allows himself but is far, far short of the necessary inspiration.

    Then comes “Home Rule all round”. The original devolution act and the recent Scotland act (which won’t have a chance to take hold before the referendum) both sprang from serious commissions of work. Now various groups are falling over themselves to come up with more-or-less well thought out proposals for devo-plus or -max (or -nano, as some SNP voices have dubbed the Gordon Brown package) and federalism has re-entered the LibDem fray. None of these proposals can be firmed up properly by spring 2016, let alone September 2014. They should be done properly or not at all.

    And if it’s Home Rule all round, we have to look to England. Labour tried regional government by stealth, leaving us with disgruntled populations, a few mayors dotted about and a patchwork of unitary authorities nestling among slightly more long-lived organisations. The coalition has added LEPs which don’t necessarily correspond to anything more than somebody’s bright idea for working together, plus a slow addition of joint city-region councils – metropolitan councils by another name. Small towns, the countryside and maybe York are worried that they will be left out. A definite pattern for the non-English nations and an often accidental ragbag of “solutions” for England does not inspire.

    And inspiration is what we need. All round.

  • “The legal situation seems to be clear : if Scotland leaves the UK then It leaves the EU too.”
    Lucky devils!
    On a financial note if the Scottish (10% of UK population?), decide to go independent and as a result lose their EU membership, it must surely follow that the UK contribution of 50 million per day to the EU ought to get a 10% discount? Otherwise all the rest of UK taxpayers would be paying more tax to make up the loss of the Scottish proportion of the EU membership?

  • Like, Like, Like!

    The “No” campaign has been too negative from the outset. There is much to shout about being part of something bigger – for example, it’s easier for a large country to negotiate a decent trade deal with another, and there are clear economies of scale in spending. We know that if the NHS in Dumfries or Galashiels needs extra beds, patients can choose to go over the border to Carlisle or Newcastle. There are clear advantages in being able to raise some taxes, but for others to be left to the UK government to deal with. Try telling someone in, for example, Texas or California that they’d be better off outside the USA, and the vast majority would tell you not to be stupid and give good reasons for not doing it – which would apply here.

    I wonder, though, if it’s the strong Labour campaigning influence on Better Together which is the problem. They’re not used to campaigning positively against the SNP – or anyone, really – so don’t understand about how to get a positive message across. We do – so maybe we need to lend them some people for a wee while?

  • Frank Booth 24th Mar '14 - 4:45pm

    Th trouble Keith is that it’s pretty obvious that Scots aren’t happy with the status quo. Only people who will acknowledge the status quo as unsatisfactory can change things. Nick Clegg stood up in 2010 as someone who we thought was promising radical change. It’s clearly too late for him now. Only a Unionist committed to abandoning neoliberalism can save our country. That means, for all his faults, Ed Miliband.

    Just look at the decision to make Thatcher’s funeral a state occasion. Why didn’t the Lib Dems raise their objections to that? Wouldn’t have done Clegg any harm to point out that the plannig had been done by Blair and Brown and the Tories were insistent. How do you think it went down in Scotland? I thought at the time it would be a PPB for Alex Salmond.

  • “Danny belongs to a coalition that plainly doesn’t share the values of most people in Scotland.”

    i.e. fiscal responsibility apparently

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 25th Mar '14 - 9:08am

    Maybe Scots don’t hear how much the majority of English don’t like the Tories either. Even that same nasty party have begun to lose their outward-looking members to the Lib Dems – where the Lib Dems have sufficient strength locally to use the defectors. There will always be a desire to quit a sinking ship and we cannot blame Scots for being tired of rule by a party they hate. As I do on most issues.

  • @Frank Booth

    “That means, for all his faults, Ed Miliband.”

    Ed Miliband has nothing to offer. He was part of the massive failures of the past in the lead up to the 2008 crisis and has no new answers apart from opportunistic grandstanding over the Coalition’s difficulties in rescuing the economy and the public finances and jumping on any passing bandwagon he can find.

    Ed Miliband is an utter zero.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Mar '14 - 9:47am

    @RC – It’s really … interesting … to watch you engage in a discussion about how the debate around devolution should be less negative with what is a negative, aggressive, mud-slinging post containing a bare minimum of meaningful political content beyond insults.

    I don’t like Cameron and I don’t necessarily yet trust Milliband, but if I (or you or anyone) just insult them repeatedly in an open web forum, I demean the party I actually support; see the comments on another thread about how LD activists felt when they were insulted by socialist activitists outside the Gateshead conference and don’t do to others what you would not wish done to yourself.

  • To my mind the positive message should centre on what it means to be British as well as – not instead of – Scottish, or English or Welsh for that matter. It is difficult to do this without getting into union jack waving and “Land of Hope and Glory* territory. Churchill managed it but he had the immense threat of world war to mobilise people. Where is our peacetime Churchill?

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Mar '14 - 9:55am

    @ Ed Wilson; I agree very stornlgy with most of what you say. The way in which all these issues are being handled by those who support improved devolution within the framework of the union has not and will not grab the imagination of the indiviual voters unless those who care deeply about it up their game considerably. Part of the problem is that those who support Union need to make it clear concede that it is right the vote be held at all; too often, strong pro-union voices (accidentally) sound like they secretly wish this debate wasn’t taking place and that it is a necessary inconvenience at best. This is an impression the SNP would wish to hammer home strongly.

  • RC
    You are in a hole in this thread. Put your spade away.

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