5 December 2013

It's a No from me, Darling...

Tory money, Labour activists: that was the deal.

Better Together's founding compact had a certain sense to it. The coalition government simply lacks the clout to carry Scotland alone. Association with the Conservatives has seen a wide-spread cull in Liberal support and representation across the country.  You can install Alistair Carmichael or Michael Moore as Secretary of State for Scotland, to avoid the embarrassment of exposing the timorous David Mundell to the public consciousness. But the political charms of neither the Orkney and Shetland MP, nor the lugubrious borderer, neatly transfer into the populous red girdle about Scotland's middle.

Across great swathes of the country, but for Scottish Labour, the Better Together party political coalition enjoys only meagre penetration.  They're going to have to invest their hopes in the organisation which brought us such favourites as the 2011 Holyrood election campaign. It is an unenviable position. But who to lash to the front of this jury-rigged ship? Gordo Broon doesn't seem keen. Alistair Darling, shop-soiled perhaps, and not very fruity, proved their best bet.

I've always been skeptical about the extent to which the ordinary punter, even the Labour sympathetic punter, holds Darling in a warm place in their hearts. The Scottish press rate him, so the soft soap is in the pat to cover his various interventions.  But it worth remembering that during his stint in ministerial office, Darling topped the league as the Most Boring Westminster politician for two years on the trot.

Reassurance, sobriety, and good judgement may be virtues, but you can't expect anybody to notice, if they're nose-down in the mashed potato over the evening news, having lost the will to live.  I'm yet to meet anybody active in public affairs, who would list a faultless capacity to elicit abject tedium as a cardinal virtue of an effective political campaigner.

But the claret's running down in the walls in Telegraph and Spectator towers. Cochers has popped.  A small knot of "senior" Tories have had the splendid idea of laying into Darling in the Financial Times, suggesting he is "comatose" and "dreary". Various other media outlets have followed the tale up. Cameron is, apparently, spitting blood and feathers and making placatory telephone calls. Whatever the truth of any of this, it is, as Massie, Martin and Cochrane argue, pleasingly bonkers from a political perspective - and arguably only a foretaste of things to come. 

Mid-term, closing the constitutional distance between the Tories and the Labour party to meet the Nationalist threat might have seemed compelling. As the Westminster General Election looms closer, however, it will become an ever less comfortable proximity. How can the Labour Party indict David Cameron and all his works, but preserve the tender, fragile argument that we're all, ultimately, "better together"? 

If the Unionist constitutional argument shifts onto more positive terrain, beyond British nationalist appeals to identity, how are their tribal differences and hatreds to be reconciled with a united vision of what it means to be "better"? How likely is it that escalating political hostilities between the two big British parties will be compatible with comity and constructive working in Scotland - while ripping the gizzards out of each other, day in day out, in the House of Commons and on the pan-UK airwaves? Faced with a choice - emphasise comity to win the referendum, or emphasise division to win the General Election of 2015 - which impulse do you think will triumph, given their Westminster-dominated priorities?

Actuarially speaking, a snowball in hell seems likely to enjoy a more favourable life expectancy and quality of life than this unhappy fellowship of enemies. Particularly where the Tories don't feel that they are getting an adequate bang from their buck from an unimaginative and episodically incompetent Better Together campaign, and from sullen Labour establishment, with less and less reason to cooperate, even if they had the capacity to do so.  

Bluntly speaking, it seems only a matter of time before the SNP take a more active hand in the direction of Yes Scotland. The Greens and the SSP may squawk a little. We may see a few press headlines, and over-refreshed visions of Nationalist control-freakery, but nobody is likely to care all that much. The same does not go for the more contested territory of Better Together. My hunch is, these incautious Tory critiques of Darling gesture indirectly towards a much broader sense of anxiety and dissatisfaction in Conservative and Liberal circles with the tactics and approach of the official No campaign.  That's a problem.

But what is HM's Government to do? They may fruitlessly grumble to sympathetic journalists, and take pot-shots at their own extremities, but the opportunity for Cameron's government to "step in" if things start to fray is limited.  The Scotland Analysis papers are an attempt to contribute to the constitutional debate from arms length, with plausible deniability. We know that the Prime Minister is - for understandable strategic reasons - keen not to become a focus for attention in the constitutional debate in Scotland. You can't be out of it, having conducted a field execution and promoted one of your own. 

And then there are the territorial questions.  But for the odd Tory, Better Together's functionaries are Labour bodies who will, in time, drift back to Mother Labour, whatever the outcome.  Delicate balances are being struck here, on a political but also on a personal basis.  I've no insight into Better Together's inner workings, but I'd be surprised if folk working there left all of their allegiances at the door. They've their living to think of.

While it remains to be seen just how all of this will transpire, disunity in Better Together is only likely to heighten as the referendum date approaches. These jabs at Darling are only the first sallies in what seems all too likely to become a you scratch my back, I'll stab yours routine between Better Together's uneasy, cut-throat alliance.

13 comments :

  1. "Bluntly speaking, it seems only a matter of time before the SNP take a more active hand in the direction of Yes Scotland. The Greens and the SSP may squawk a little. We may see a few press headlines, and over-refreshed visions of Nationalist control-freakery, but nobody is likely to care all that much."

    The No campaign have been insisting the Yes camp is only a front for the SNP. If that was to actually become the case, what difference would it make to the media headlines? Hoisted by your own pointy thing.

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    1. Bugger all, I should have thought. But it seems quite a likely development to me (not that it'll become a full-blown front, but that we'll see some of the effects of a firmer line being taken by the Nats eventually). And I can assure you, it isn't *my* petard, which I can also assure you, is boomy rather than pointy.

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    2. My use of 'your' was in the direction of the doomsquad, not your goodself. :-)

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    3. Hooray! Was mostly concerned that I'd been obscure again.

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  2. LPW
    ' How likely is it that escalating political hostilities between the two big British parties will be compatible with comity and constructive working in Scotland - while ripping the gizzards out of each other, day in day out, in the House of Commons and on the pan-UK airwaves?'

    Hardly ripping out Gizzards! An underworked argument in the Yes camp is that Westminster is basically shadowboxing. Probably underworked because the players at Holyrood seem to actually dislike each other. Unless you are a partisan waiting to cheer one of the players, Holyrood is unwatchable on the telly. Westminster is also unwatchable, but because it is boring. Holyrood is a pit of Justified Sinners, Westminster is Crossroads 1975.



    LPW
    'Bluntly speaking, it seems only a matter of time before the SNP take a more active hand in the direction of Yes Scotland. The Greens and the SSP may squawk a little.'

    Well to evoke again those early days of Holyrood, the Greens and the SSP formed a good wee chunk of parliament and got some good stuff done. The SSP are now dead (the Sherry vehicle Solidarity counts for less than the BNP) and the Greens have been running behind even the self-destructing UKIP in by-elections. So yes, the SNP have every right - arguably duty - to step up to the plate. To echo the evil Georgian, how many battalions does Colin Fox bring to the Front? The Greens at least have many excellent councillors they can point to.


    Everyone agrees that Better Together is a mess and that the Yes campaign is well organised, but I'm not sure it matters regarding the outcome of the referendum. The Nos still have it, despite the incompetence of the No campaign. As a No voter myself, I derive little comfort for that conclusion.

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    1. Why "no", Edwin, out of curiosity? (If you wanted to enlarge on the point, I'd be happy to host a guest blog here. I'm always interested in folk explaining themselves, above and beyond the Bash Street Kids politicking of our friends in the Better Together offices.

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  3. I'll comment from underneath my tinfoil hat.
    'No' may well be ahead in polls, but as the British State has been known to commit murder, wage war, and use bribery to hold on to their possesions, polls may prove an easy tool in their armoury.

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  4. I know nowt 'bout this topic. It sounds, however, very similar to the Mouvement souverainiste du Québec in The Canadas leading to 'Separation' referendums in 1980 and again in 1995. The rhetoric of both sides, Oui - Non, is very similar.

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    1. Indeedy, much in common with the Canadian experience here, though happily, our referendum is framed in a slightly more intelligible fashion - with two options, Oui ou Non.

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    2. Oui ou Non?
      As it should be. The Scots joual being a tad less basilectal than that hideous Quebecois.

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  6. Alastair Darling and his Tory and LibDem chums in Project Fear will continue to stick to their script of spreading doom and gloom about independence right up to referendum day as a smokescreen to cover the fact that even if the will was there, there isn't a cat's chance in hell that together they could agree and produce an alternative vision of Scotland's Future to rival the SNP's White Paper.

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