Maybe the No campaign will limp lamely over the finishing line as winners; maybe they won’t. The opinion pollsters seem as bemused as the rest of us. But if they do win, whatever the margin, let nobody describe this as a triumph. As a campaign, and as an exercise in true public relations the No campaign has been an abject, cringing failure at almost every stage. Overwhelmingly, the arguments should have been on their side. It was virtually an open goal, politically. But somehow, the dry, unimaginative, dullards shaping the campaign, apparently without an iota of PR intelligence between them, have managed to create the incredible possibility of a Yes win. Even if the No camp succeed, the hostility and bitterness spread by their negative campaigning will have damaged the United Kingdom for decades to come.
The dream of Scottish independence was never a dream for bean counters. It was never about the price of goods in Tesco , nor interest rates, nor the level of taxes. Yes, all these things mattered, and they all belonged in the debate. But it was never about practicalities. It was a dream, a vision, a wild, romantic, myth-laden , joyful, utterly impractical fantasy, astonishingly made practical by the rumpled, tubby, golden-tongued, politically canny Emperor of Holyrood.
Salmond stirred up a broth of hope and longing. He reached back into legend and history; he recited poetry from the heart, and evoked potent , wonderful, half-formed visions, allowing his fellow-dreamers to colour them in. It was never about detail for Alex Salmond, never about book-keeping. Don’t ask him about post-independence currency, don’t question Scotland’s right to membership of the European Union. These quibbles had no place in the big picture. They had no tune to contribute to the old music he was stirring in the hearts of the Scottish people. He had the clans on the march again.
To counter this, the No campaign chose its own champion. Alistair Darling. Lawyer, former Chancellor, decent, competent, sensible, joy-killing, dry-as-dust political Dementor, tasked with spreading depression and despair through the Yes campaign ranks. And gloom, overwhelmingly, was the strategy of the No campaign. Talk up the risks. Threaten disaster. Listen to these bankers, these brokers, these economists. They’ll tell you how bad things will be. With war looming, the No campaign platoon was put in the hands of Private Frazer . “We’re doooomed ! ”
Only in the final, dying days of the campaign, with the shocking possibility of defeat suddenly looming, did any sense of passion seem to enter the hearts of the No campaigners. But even then, it was largely a joyless passion. It was fear. It was grief. “Don’t leave us. We need you”. The cry from Westminster sounded like the doomed wail at the end of an affair.
How humiliating, too, embarrassing, unconvincing, manipulative and crass was the sudden rush in the last few days of the campaign to offer the people of Scotland an array of shining new new privileges and rights. This was like the man who has forgotten his wedding anniversary stopping on the way home to grab a few bunches of flowers from the garage round the corner. If the No campaign leaders really believed, in their hearts, that the people of Scotland deserved these extra trinkets, why were they not on offer from the outset?
But where was the pride and joy in all the Union has achieved? Where the vision of these great nations shaping their future place in the world, each lending special strength to the other? The unique synergy of cultures, values, beliefs and abilities that is the United Kingdom has been unparalleled in the history of this planet. It has been, and still is, absolutely a force for decency, civilisation, tolerance and democracy, and by god, the world needs those qualities right now. If you believe these things, then taking apart such a precious creation would be an act of childish, hubristic political vandalism.
Of course, the warnings and the practicalities had their place in the argument. But campaigning against the passions unleashed by Salmond, something more was needed than Belloc’s “always keep a-hold of Nurse; For fear of finding something worse.” We needed to believe in something better. In this, whatever the Referendum result, the No campaign failed.
16th September, 2014