Forward Guidance on the Referendum Campaign



The independence referendum campaign is unusual.  Amongst the modern countries seeking their independence, the arguments were simple and effective – independent self-government is the form of government that is the essence of national freedom – the democratic expression of the will of the nation. So there is little argument over the case. Instead there is an enthusiastic vision of what the new nation can do with independence once it joins or rejoins the family of nations within the UN.

Then there is absence of vision, passion and emotion. National freedom does not exist in a sterile environment.  Yet in Scotland there is little such expression and the politicians, particularly on the YES side, prefer to argue a case with all the excitement of a robot. As for nationalism this has been successfully given the homeopathic treatment so that it has been successively diluted beyond trace, and with it the strong card of Scotland’s national identity! The dynamic of nationalism has seemingly been dulled by dose of devolutionary ‘mogadon’. George Robertson (former Labour Minister) may have overstated his case that devolution would kill the demand for independence, but he clearly had a point.

Temper of the Nation

So where are we now?  In Catalonia, much larger than Scotland with 7.5 million people, over one and a half million have demonstrated on the streets in favour of Catalan independence in Europe. YES supporters would be delirious if a fraction of that, say 20,000 to 30,000 instead of a comparable one million, turned out in Scotland.

Neal Ascherson once compared the nationalisms of Poland (messianic) and Czechoslovakia (reluctant), it would appear that Scotland is more in the Czech mould. Rather than looking ahead confidently, many of our people are frightened of change. But if they realise that there is no equality, fairness or future under the Union with England given the disparate sizes of both populations, they may reluctantly, accept that the best prospect is with independence.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that a referendum is being held at all without the due preparation of public opinion that would lead to a resounding victory – and when you are 9 points behind, the judgement and strategy look adventurous at best and reckless at worst. But you can only build with the clay you have!

At half time, all is not lost. But where do we go from here?



For a start, has there been a campaign? No doubt YES for Scotland has been ‘beavering’ away at the important organisational and social media campaign and is getting ready for the work on the ground. The impression given to the public and media is one of lack of strategic vision and general unreadiness to face issues such as Europe, the currency and defence. Instead, the YES side has shiftily moved position under pressure from Better Together. Why the stance on these issues was not worked out earlier is one aspect historians will be anxious to explore!

There seems to have been an uneasy, and certainly, listless response to the attacks from the other side. Political punch-bags do not usually win votes. The campaign seems to be a two headed affair with the larger head of the SNP dominating. If so, that structural imbalance needs to be sorted out as a matter of urgency!

What is surprising is that the YES campaign has found itself bogged down over the trench warfare over topics like Europe etc where the outcome cannot be known in detail until the negotiations take place after the vote in principle. There are political stratagems that could easily have been put in place, and still can, to allow the Scottish people a vote on options or choices after independence to ratify the solutions that they consider best for Scotland.

It has not been made clear that the Scots will have an immediate general election after independence takes effect. Instead, the impression given is that the choice lies only with SNP or Scottish Government policy. That is clearly not the case as this is Scotland’s referendum even if the SNP deserves the credit for achieving it and negotiating the terms. And it also has to be said that the manoeuvring of the British Government into signing the Edinburgh Agreement was a political triumph for Scotland since it dispelled any doubts over the legitimacy of the process.

Nevertheless, there has been little systematic effort to persuade the people of the weaknesses in devolution and advantages of independence – almost as if the message of good government at Holyrood in itself is an argument for independence. Paradoxically, the converse may be true.

Also from YES for Scotland and the Government, there is the peculiar notion that negative politics does not work – something the Americans would find strange. Of course, positivism worked in the Scottish elections of 2007 and 2011. But negative campaigns torpedoed the 1975 EU referendum, 1979 referendum, the SNP in the Scottish Elections of 1999 and 2003 and the SNP in most Westminster elections.

There has to be a balance but the YES campaign has been silent on the issue of why the Union is bad for Scotland as well as why independence is good.

So, three out of ten so far.


Without doubt the NO campaign has been better prepared, better organised and more effective – hardly surprising since it exercises the power of the British state within its weaponry. It has taken the attack and forced an ill-prepared YES side into defensive reactions. Of course, it has benefited from the support of a predominantly Unionist media. Yet with the SNP Government polling at a record 48%, this is not as potent as it seems. Still, for activity and direction, one can admire the superior staff work of the Cabinet Office compared to that of the Scottish civil service.

If reports are correct, the Conservative controlled Cabinet Office set up a team to defend the Union as soon as the SNP won an overall majority in the 2011 election and set out to use British state institutions like the Commons and Lords Select Committees (some 13 adverse reports) and other governmental agencies to argue against Scottish independence.

Little attempt was made to show the benefits of the Union other than in cursory terms. Instead from November 2011, there was an offensive on what were perceived to be weak points such as Europe, the currency and defence. Since then there has been a constant stream of negativity. The Scots they said would be isolated from Europe (and coming from the ‘little Englanderism’ of London, that was rich). The Bank of England would not play ball over Scotland’s inclusion in a sterling zone (despite us owning 9% of the Bank). And as for defence, unlike other small European nations, Scotland would be prey to large, unidentified predator countries). Again rich coming from the UK which is building aircraft carriers with few aircraft and which has notified NATO that it cannot fulfil its naval commitments!

But then the campaign ran out of control. The incessant attacks lost punch. They began to look anti-Scottish, disparaging to the point of racism. Indeed, the anti-Scottish tone caused people to wonder are these rancorous people in London on our side? If not, what will happen to us if we vote NO? If this is London’s snide wooing when they want us to stay, what will happen to Scotland if we make ourselves when we have influence after remaining in the Union? That coin has still to drop, but when it does, the impact will be potent.

So, for aggression, direction and impact, Better Together should have won hands down. Against that, they lacked subtlety and while succeeding in creating doubt as to how Scotland can manage, they have over-stated their case. Bluntly they have shot their bolt. Project Fear has become Project Ridiculous. They will be in a difficult position to maintain their momentum once the YES campaign (hopefully) gets its act together. Sooner or later they will have to demonstrate what benefits Scotland will get as a minority partner within the Union in circumstances where Scotland will have no political relevance after a NO vote.

Gauged alone for causing doubt, they are worth four out of ten!


1.     Operational Control

The imbalance between the SNP Government and the campaign body YES for SCOTLAND is wrong and both the governmental politicians and the leaders of the wider campaign must redefine their roles and become more effective. It is confusing to have YES for SCOTLAND having independent and other Party representatives forced to adopt policies on Europe, defence and the currency to suit SNP policy with which they do not agree.

2.     Vision and Strategic Direction

If the Campaign leaders have imagination and boldness, they could immediately gain momentum by outflanking Better Together and its negativity by proposing that the two salient issues of Europe (EU or EFTA) and the currency go to the Scottish people for decision in a second referendum after the negotiations are concluded. This will be ultimate democracy and difficult for the NO campaign to argue against. Relatively consequential issues like defence, NATO and Trident can be matters for the first Scottish government elected after independence. In the current set-up, the issue of the monarchy is aberrational to the campaign and if Scotland adopts a Swiss style constitution, it will potentially be a matter for resolution by referendum on a monarchical accession on the far side of independence. In any event, the people would decide. This is the right thing to do.

Freeing up these issues would allow independent i.e. non-SNP representatives to speak up. Although I am a member of the SNP, I concede that this Referendum belongs to the Scottish people rather than to the SNP although the SNP deserves for credit for securing a mandate for it and for its resolve and astuteness that led to the Edinburgh Agreement with the UK Government that removed any questions as to legitimacy.

3.     Stating the Benefits

This should largely be the task of SNP Government Ministers backed by the Scottish civil service. They have the senior public presence and the back up to make this their role. They will, however, have to sharpen the pedestrian caution of civil servants, some of whose loyalties will be dubious. The business of administration will need to be reorganised to allow space for Ministers to act as politicians almost as if this was an election to give some dynamism to the campaign. It should be for YES for Scotland to secure independent experts/reports and endorsing celebrities to back up the ministerial effort.

4.    Attacking the Union

This is where YES for SCOTLAND and SNP MSPs, MEP’s and MPs should be deployed as soon as possible in a managed offensive. The theme is obvious. The enemy of the British Union is London and the South of England which from Thatcher’s day has been gobbling up the wealth of the UK to the hurt of the rUK, in this case Wales, Northern Ireland, Northern England and Scotland. Thanks to the Scottish Parliament and the strength of a good Scottish Government, Scotland has fared less badly, but even there our rate of economic growth has been constrained by the fact that British economic and monetary policy under Labour Ministers like Brown and Darling and the Coalition of Southern Tory and Liberal millionaires, has been managed for the benefit of the City of London and the south.

There is plenty of ammunition but the central buttress is the recent report on the mismanagement of the British economy by Margaret Cuthbert and published in July 2013 by The Jimmy Reid Foundation. Few people in Scotland are aware that there had been no industrial policy in the UK for thirty years designed to neuter the rapacious greed of southern England.

Here we share the problems with other parts of the economy of the North of England has atrophied while London has boomed. So Scotland should go out of its way to establish strong contacts with the Northern English Councils who are beginning to sense the economic benefits to their region of having a strong independent Scottish economy as a counterweight to London.

Scotland, with the moral support of the North, should strike at the southern cancer. For Scottish people the lesson should be made clear. London and the South are holding Scotland back. London got more benefit from Scotland’s oil than Scotland did. Freed from London control, Scotland will be set for expansion. Under the London straitjacket, continuing mismanagement of the British economy favouring the south of England cannot be withstood by the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament.


There is a naive notion that if Scotland votes no, Westminster will give additional powers to the Scottish Parliament. No doubt devolution carrots will be dangled in the run-up to the Referendum. The evidence runs to the contrary. In 1945, 1969, 1974 and again in 1979 successive UK Governments reneged on promises of Home Rule, industrial powers based on North Sea Oil and ‘better’ schemes of devolution as soon as pressure from Scotland eased. It is not in the nature of the British beast to change its nature.

Objective analysis of what happened in Canada after Quebec narrowly voted against independence in the last referendum has recently been published. After the referendum, Quebec lost political influence within Canada and Canadian centralisation increased.

This will happen here. As a matter of strategy, the UK Government will move to trim the powers of the Scottish parliament to ensure no further moves towards independence. The Barnet formula will be scrapped. The revenues of the Scottish government will be reduced proportionately to the English average. Scots law will come under attack from the Supreme Court whose President has declared in a speech that he expects the Court to be more active on devolution matters if Scotland votes NO.

There will be a process of assimilation of Scottish institutions to an Anglo/British mode and deviations from English models, including the NHS will not be tolerated in the interests of equality and rationalisation. Nor could Scotland object, having voted to remain within the British polity.

One thing assured is that Scotland’s influence will be reduced domestically and worldwide for a generation. If you aim for the stars and crash, no one will take you seriously and it is likely the trend of positive foreign investment seen during the independence debate will reverse

This issue has not yet surfaced but when it does, it will have impact. Most of those intending to vote NO expect the status quo to continue. It will not. The tail of the British lion has been tweaked and there will be uncomfortable consequences.

Recognition of this by the wider Scottish electorate could be a game changer.


This article is intended to be an analysis of progress so far and outline possible future options for the YES campaign. It is not a blueprint, something far beyond the scope of OPTIONS for SCOTLAND. What it does is to inject new ideas and themes at a mid-term turning point. At the very least, it is to be hoped that the YES Campaign will be more visionary and assertive.


GORDON WILSON is Director of OPTIONS FOR SCOTLAND. He was the creator and Director of the iconic IT’S SCOTLAND’S OIL campaign and former National Secretary and Chairman (leader) of The SNP