Only a year remains. Just 52 weeks, 12 months, four seasons and 365.256 days for the planet to nip around the sun and back again. Still time for a couple of speeches if anyone’s in the mood. Doesn’t history fly when you’re having fun?
In reality, the semi-educated guesswork as to Scotland’s future will probably begin next spring, when the finishing post is bigger than a speck in the distance. By then, we will have a better idea of the quantity of shots left in the referendum lockers. For now, the truly tantalising question is whether the No campaign can keep its scare-a-day production line going for a full year.
What remains? No part of Scottish life has been left untouched by the horsemen of the Better Together apocalypse. You name it and it has been laid waste, metaphorically, by the representatives of austerity Britain. In the process, they have tested the limits of fiction several times over. So here’s a serious question: can they run the disaster movie for yet another year, or do they think they have accomplished their mission?
Alistair Darling doesn’t seem too sure. As to victory, he refuses to utter the word. In fact, the former chancellor and director of Better Together is less than pleased with those in Whitehall (and perhaps elsewhere) who think their job is done. He seems to believe, correctly, that the real argument has barely begun. What’s more, Mr Darling is not yet ready to trust the opinion polls.
This is interesting. All campaigning politicians warn their troops against complacency as a matter of course, but certain startling contradictions are evident within the No campaign. Some enthusiasts insist almost daily that the case for independence has been discredited, or indeed “demolished”. They talk about those polls a lot. They want wavering voters to believe a foregone conclusion awaits. In contrast, Mr Darling is dismissive.
It is “absolute rubbish”, he tells the Herald, to maintain that the Unionist game is won. What’s more, “It will be a lot closer than people think because the headline polls are misleading. It will be difficult to call right up to the wire”. Put aside your personal preferences: just why would he say that?
The former chancellor is privy, of course, to campaign reports from across the country. Few on the Yes side – and anyone else with ears – doubt that these are at odds with the standard narrative. Equally, however, only heroically optimistic supporters of independence are prepared to claim just yet that received wisdom is being stood on its head and an upheaval has begun.
Mr Darling makes two judgements. One is that inevitably the polls will narrow. But how come? Why should they? Secondly, the former chancellor believes the numbers thrown up consistently by most opinion surveys, the surveys that have given so much confidence to Unionists, are “misleading”. No aspersions are being cast over anyone’s methodology, so what is meant by that remark?
One factor might have to do with the nature of the No vote. Most people are familiar with the run of the polls. Those say, with very few exceptions, that independence will be rejected decisively a year from now. For now, this is the central fact in the argument. But the secondary fact is that within those polls the No vote has been bobbing around like an untethered balloon.
The result is paraphrased, especially in London, as 60-40 against independence. The actual numbers, no matter how you judge undecided voters, are far less solid. Fieldwork conducted by four separate organisations in the last fortnight in August showed the No vote ranging from 43% to 59%. This alone is odd. The first number was discovered by Panelbase in a poll for the SNP, the second by YouGov for Devo+. So which is the “outlier”?
For all that, multiple divergences do not explain why Mr Darling thinks the gap between the two sides will narrow. In his shoes, you could as easily believe that Better Together will go on to finish the job. There is an obvious risk for a campaign chairman, of course, in taking things for granted. But it might be just as risky for a Unionist to dismiss all those lovely, favourable polls as simply misleading. It might suggest a certain lack of confidence.
The same could be said – in this space, it will be said – about Mr Darling’s attack on Alex Salmond for challenging David Cameron to a public debate. It is reasonable, even clever, to hold the SNP to their claim that the referendum is Scotland’s affair. It is quite another thing to claim that in a historic argument over the very future of Britain the prime minister of the day is “neither here nor there”.
In reality, Mr Cameron is there, not here. Does he not want to become involved? Is it not, in fact, his duty? Or does Better Together recognise a handicap when it hears one? That’s probably one reason why Mr Darling believes the referendum result will be close. Any and all reminders of Westminster government are a tonic for the Yes side and stones in the shoes of their opponents. The prospect of another coalition, for which Nick Clegg has been busy pleading, is less than ideal for Unionism.
There are multiple ironies within that fact, but it is bound to be one of the stories of the year ahead. What sort of campaign is it that cannot afford to talk eagerly or often about the realities of the Union it hopes to defend? David Cameron is being kept out of sight and, they hope, out of mind. Ed Miliband has also been notable for his absence from the anti-independence campaign. The man who hopes to lead a Labour UK government is not an asset to Labour’s Unionists.
Clearly, Mr Darling knows as much. In the year ahead, the most important piece of cross-border traffic will be political news from the south. How can you proclaim the benefits of Union if George Osborne is on the prospectus? Better Together hangs together because, assuredly, its partners would otherwise hang separately. Mr Darling faces a year of trying to pretend that a No vote will amount to something more than another dose of coalition.
It will be a long year. The politicians, because they can’t help themselves, are fighting a miserable campaign of attrition with “facts” while the public continues to insist that it is, on balance, none the wiser. Set aside the natural, if impossible, demand for a future foretold in every last detail and there remains a disjunction between a traditional political contest – do in the other lot – and the kind of inspiration required when, as advertised, history beckons. Neither side has risen to the challenge.
This writer has put his criticisms of Mr Salmond on record before. The adulterated version of independence being offered from that quarter will get my vote for two reasons only. First, self-evidently, it is the only game in town. Secondly, if even the outlines of independence are established Mr Salmond’s happy thoughts of monarchy, Nato, currency unions and the rest can be banished within months. If he takes a Yes vote as an endorsement he will be mistaken. If the Yes campaign is struggling meantime the primary reason is the infinitely pliant gradualism of the First Minister.
On Mr Darling’s side, the year to come has another problem in store. Nick Clegg bumbled into this one during his party’s visit to Glasgow. Does Better Together truly believe it can get through another 12 months with its politicians asserting that devolution will be “improved” after a No vote while they refuse to identify proposals for improvement? That doesn’t sound plausible. In fact, it sounds insulting. But it has become part of the party-political nature of this contest.
The problem runs deep. In 1979, many Scots fumed over the vote-rigging involved in the so-called 40% rule. This time around Mr Cameron has decreed a “straight choice”, like it or not. Advertising the benefits of a Scotland still wedded to Britain, meanwhile, he has refused to describe the aftermath of a No vote even as he seeks that vote. Arguments are being stifled.
In true party-political style, equally, Unionists persist in talking about “Salmond’s referendum”. In reality, the vote will be no such thing. It’s my referendum, and yours, and ours. Yet Mr Darling thinks the result will be close? Better Together should learn how to put two and two together.
People want information; of course they do. There is a limit, though, to what can be offered honestly. The future is funny like that. What tends to be overlooked is that the future of a continuing UK is at least as uncertain as the possible future of an independent Scotland. Given recent history, I’m rather more worried about the former than the latter.
For now, the best hope is that those involved will stop behaving as though this is just another very long election campaign. Chance would be a fine thing, of course. It may be that the issue is bigger than any politician. It may be that people are tired of hearing every idea framed in party terms. But Mr Darling is right about one thing. The story being told by the polls is just one set of narratives. Those will unravel long before 52 weeks have passed.
A shortened version of the above will appear in The Herald on 18 September, 2013. The newspaper allows me plenty of space, but somehow it’s never enough. Call me periphrastic. For the record, yet again, no one at The Herald tells me what to write or how to write it. Both edits are my doing.