Whatever they want? The renewed challenge of campaigning for the Scottish status quo

by Tom Gillingham

Last night we potentially saw the opening shots of the Unionist campaign in the much-discussed second Scottish independence referendum, or Indyref2. While we are currently in something of a phony war, all signs suggest that the SNP is gearing up for a renewed campaign to exit the UK.

The first unionist salvo was delivered almost simultaneously from two different platforms, in two different locations in London. In many ways this is instructive of the challenges faced by any campaign to keep Scotland in the union.

The main opposition parties in Scotland – the Conservatives and Labour – are unlikely to want to share a platform after the fall out from the Better Together campaign, and the challenge of developing nuanced referendum-within-a-referendum messaging is a major one, particularly in light of the successes of recent ‘plain speaking’ campaigns.

While this particular subplot might seem peripheral to the wider issue of Brexit negotiations, there is a very real risk the UK could leave the EU and find it has lost Scotland in the process.

In the Q&A after the LSE speech Ruth Davidson described the SNP’s political machine as ‘formidable’ and it would certainly seem that the ‘Yes’ side is still well positioned to take the initiative on the emotive side of the independence argument.

Self-determination, the apparent democratic deficit between Scotland’s electorate and Westminster, and the ownership of ‘Scottishness’ are all powerful campaign levers. On the other side, key economic questions remain unanswered, including future currency, prospective membership of the EU and the stability of an independent Scotland’s economy. The worry amongst the Unionist side, however, is that these economic arguments that drove the ‘No’ campaign to success last time won’t cut through in a re-run.

‘Project Fear’ was a term weaponised by both the ‘Yes’ side and the ‘Leave’ campaign, and this poses a real challenge for any campaign dependent on facts and figures that could be perceived as negative. It’s widely believed that ‘Take back control’ and that red bus were integral to the success of the Brexit campaign – and it is now the Unionist challenge to establish similarly compelling soundbites, albeit around an even more complex case.

Unsurprisingly Ruth Davidson appeared to be road-testing some emotive soundbites of her own in her LSE speech. Lines alluding to the fact Scottish children won’t get a second chance at an education (unlike the SNP with indyref2), and positive examples of UK foreign aid educating women around the globe suggest that Ms Davidson, at least, is preparing to fight on more than statistics. Whether this can match up to the established nationalist case remains to be seen.

At this stage, indyref2 is still a hypothetical scenario. No referendum has yet been called and the question remains whether the public can stomach another referendum. Polling suggests voters are too battered and bruised to relish the prospect of further constitutional upheaval, but it would be short-sighted to dismiss the extraordinary pressure that Nicola Sturgeon is now under to honour the SNP’s founding principle.

This is unquestionably a high-stakes game. If the SNP lose another referendum it could set their cause back indefinitely. If the UK loses Scotland, the downsides for all remaining parties could be profound and long-lasting.

If Brexit was playing out on the big screen, it’s fair to suggest this particular Scottish subplot is giving the main storyline a good run for its money in terms of dramatic tension, and it is clear there are still many twists to come.