It will therefore come as something of a surprise when I say that what I hope to see from Better Together in these crucial, final months of campaigning is more negativity.
Not simply negativity, but focused negativity.
And that negativity should be directed towards the Union. It is the only intellectually honest tactic to save the 307 year old union, which is itself arguably threatened by the strategy of its self-appointed defenders.
Let’s turn back the clock a bit. A little over a year ago, myself and other Lib Dems were making the case for a multi-question referendum on the basis that this was the surest method of providing for guaranteed further constitutional and political reform in the aftermath of a “no” vote. In essence, many of us were looking for a way by which we could bring ourselves to vote “no” in the knowledge that improvements would inevitably follow. As an “ultra-federalist” (an intended term of abuse coined by a fellow Lib Dem) I fail to see how the constitutional status quo is either desirable or sustainable, a view shared by many others who are far from nationalists in their political outlook. We wanted some guarantees rather than vague talk.
In the meantime, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have published their own plans for Home Rule. It misses a few opportunities but in general it’s a fairly optimistic and well conceived vision. It is not, however, a blueprint for a federalist settlement and its principal deficiency is that the Lib Dems lack the means via which to implement their grand programme. Ming Campbell’s report is a signal of intention at best; there is no serious prospect of it being realised without the support of the Conservative and Labour parties – which means there is no serious prospect of it being realised.
For their part, the Tories and Labour are at pains to tell us that there will be further reform, but omit to provide explanation as to what shape it may take. This lack of elaboration on their part is telling. Labour talk in vague terms about a range of ideas including a new convention, but are unable to be more specific and have suggested long-term timescales; the Tories seem to be struggling to put forward any proposals of significance that are remotely practical.
This is relevant to the pertinent and immediate question of whether Scotland should be an independent nation as it underlines the inescapable fact that it is not only the pro-independence camp that legitimately stands accused of a failure to provide detail of their vision for a post-referendum Scotland. The only certainty is that, whatever the referendum result, the immediate consequence will be more uncertainty.
Of course the Scottish voting public deserve better. However, in the absence of any positive indications from Better Together as to what form and shape prospective constitutional reforms might take, what is needed is a healthy dose of intellectual and political honesty towards the nature of the Union.
If we were to believe Better Together’s claims, then the Union has never been in a healthier state. It constitutes “the best of both worlds”. It is “like a family”. In fact, like Mary Poppins, it is practically perfect in every way. Better Together consistently sing the praises of the status quo, as if any deviation from the current settlement would result in economic Armageddon.
No doubt there are some who believe this; who genuinely think that the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy is an example to the world, who feel that no further reform other than the most basic of tinkering at the edges is necessary, or whose understandings of “family” are as dysfunctional loosely connected units presided over by a domineering patriarchal figure.
Aside from its message that the Union represents some type of democratic Utopia, Better Together’s tactics have been invariably negative. The worst thing about the campaign to date is that, in supposedly “defending” the Union, they are actively undermining the case for both federalism and future constitutional reform. It is more than ironic that Liberal Democrats, passionate advocates for ongoing reform, have sat passively by while their progressive vision is sidelined in favour of shrill, tribalistic negativity. Worse still is the degree to which many Liberal Democrat activists have uncritically supported whatever Better Together happen to be saying at any given time, including misguided and disingenuous claims about the nature of the Union.
What I would like to see from Better Together is an acceptance of the Union’s flawed make-up. It must, like those of us campaigning for a better EU, recognise the dysfunctional nature of the status quo – accepting that the current arrangements are far from perfect and actually have so often failed to serve the interests of Scots. It must be honest in regards the Union’s deficient democratic system, the need to build on the devolution settlement, the social and economic divisions inherent within (and exacerbated by) the Union, and the worsening relations between Scottish and British parliaments. It also has to recognise that the Britishness it promotes and defends with such vigour is dying and that the appetite for change is very real.
Messages such as “the Union has served us well for 300 years” are not only glib and simplistic; they are very, very wrong. The Union, like any other political arrangement, has had its share of successes and failures. It is difficult to take seriously any “positive case” made by a campaign group that refuses to face up to inconvenient facts of history.
Better Together, if it genuinely aspires to any kind of political credibility, must acknowledge that it recognises the glaring limitations and inadequacy of the Union, rather than reinforcing lazy myths and ill-informed cultural stereotypes. Only by embracing intellectual honesty can Better Together hope to preserve the Union. It may well be the case that the Union is worth defending, not least if – like the EU – it can be reformed from within. But the Union so beloved by Better Together no longer exists – if it ever really did. What the Union needs, if it is to survive, is not the ramblings of nostalgics and an ill-conceived appeal to shared culture, but a forward-looking approach; one that learns from the past while recognising the Union in the future will need to be very different in how it works, how it relates to its component parts and how its systems of democracy work in action.
So, it’s time for Better Together to up its game. Let’s have more cynicism and negativity – not towards Scotland, but towards the Union itself. I don’t expect Better Together to articulate a programme of evolutionary constitutional reform, but a general acceptance of the Union’s weaknesses and limitations would be a very useful starting point for future constitutional negotiations.