George Osborne and David Cameron have stumbled into the debate on Scottish independence, whether to distract attention from the other crises the government faces, or because they feel genuinly worried that Alex Salmond's SNP will make all the running, or both. So here are some immediate reflections on the sudden outburst of interest in an issue which could re-shape Britain whatever happens.
- Don't believe the polls this far out. All the indications are that most people will happily change their minds on this (either way). The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in December found a significant majority in favour of independence if they believed it would make them £500 better off a year. If they thought it would make them £500 poorer, the vast majority were against. Political hacks don't seem to have grasped the extent to which most people in Scotland just don't have a firm opinion on independence yet. This means everything's to play for...
- … but it means something else too. The significance of this isn't just the cash sum, it's the indifference. Most Scots either don't yet know which country they would like to be a part of, or don't particularly care. In the past, people were asked to die for king and country. Today it seems they're not sure if they care enough to vote for it (whichever 'it' it is). If the modern Western nation state was symbolically born in Westphalia in 1648 then will it die in Britain in 2014? Scots have in the past been known for our cringe. Perhaps in future we'll be famed for our shrug – the gesture of the slow death of the nation state.
- The social attitudes survey tells us something else: it identifies how to sway the swing voters. If the referendum campaign is fought on the staid turf of national identity – if it is seen as a choice between Scottish and British - then the result will likely be no: there clearly isn't a majority who will simply vote for the saltire, so the safe option of the status quo will remain. If it's a choice between governments – between Westminster and Holyrood and which has what powers, then there's a chance. The £500 isn't about a bribe. It is an invitation to make a serious case for how keeping government close improves lives. The UK press has made much of the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. But the SNP seem to understand that this would force the fight onto the exact turf which will turn off many of their swing voters.
- One of the reasons a second question – on devolution max – is a good idea for those of us who support independence is that it shepherds the conversation away from nationalism and towards governance: if it's there, people will start asking what the differences are. Despite this, the split on this question is bizarre – Lib Dem Scottish secretary Michael Moore is fighting to stop it being asked despite this option being Liberal Democrat policy.
- If the Westphalian nation state is dying then it is being killed by two intertwined forces. Globalisation is killing nations, neoliberalism is killing the state (government). And if the referendum is about governments rather than nations, then it will not just be about the Scottish government. It is also about the British government: it is a choice between the two. If Cameron is to make a case for a “no” vote, then he will need to make a positive case for British government – and therefore for government. And he needs to do it right as he is the unleashing an almighty neo-liberal assault on the very concept. If you don't believe in government, why does it matter who isn't governing? Put more practically, what 'shared institutions' can he talk about without having to admit he's gutting them?
- Labour will need to make the same case, and seem more aware of this. But they've fumbled. So far – at Prime Minister's Questions and on Question Time, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander respectively have trotted out almost identical lines about shared institutions. Top of the list for both is the NHS. But the NHS is devolved already. It is not the same organisation, and with Lansley's reforms, it is less and less similar. They'll need to come up with a better argument than that. But as they don't want to talk about the things which are reserved – tax and benefits – they'll struggle.
- Which highlights another problem the 'no' campaign faces. Who will lead it? David Cameron is desperately unpopular in Scotland, and couldn't beat Gordon Brown in 2010 in the UK. Ed Miliband, remarkably, is less popular even than Dave north of the border. Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, is a Lib Dem... I hear rumours that things are so bad, people are discussing asking Alex Ferguson to finally leave Man U to “save the union”. I suspect that won't happen, but it shows the state they're in. Whoever it is will face the team who delivered the SNP's astonishing campaign in May – the most impressive political machine in the UK gearing up for the campaign it's dreamt of since childhood.
- And it's not just the leadership. Look at the ground campaigns. The SNP have long had the most detailed canvass returns I've come across anywhere. They showed in May that they have the doorstep army to win big, and they will be turning out in droves for the campaign of their lives: the party gained 800 or so new members this week. There are already countless groups from every corner of the country discussing non-SNP yes campaigns. Independence is something to get excited about. Saving the Cameron's 'cadaver Britain' isn't.
- The no campaign is going to struggle. Labour were outgunned on the ground by the SNP in May. Having lost most of their more talented MSPs, they are in meltdown mode. And it's probably about to get a lot worse. Councillors are the lynchpins of local parties everywhere, but nowhere more so than in the west of Scotland where Labour have sat on power for decades. This May, every council seat in the country is up for grabs: the second election since the introduction of Single Transferable Vote for local authorities. The SNP are polling at 51% nationally. If Labour lose control of Glasgow and significant numbers of their seats across the country then the unionist campaign has lost its lieutenants. Some may hang around, but many more will drift off to find new jobs. Or maybe not: I'd bet a £50,000 'payment' from a public body to my political party that any incoming SNP administrations in the west of Scotland will rapidly launch corruption investigations against their long serving predecessors. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if many of the people that the unionist campaigns are banking on to fight on the front line are in fact fighting to keep themselves out of jail come 2014. People haven't yet got their heads round the scale of the implications of the Labour collapse in Scotland. This is just one example of its impact. The idea that Lib Dems or Tories will make up for this gap is laughable.
- Add to the leadership and the ground campaign this one fact: In one donation alone the independence campaign was given £1 million recently. That's over and above the SNP's ability to better fundraise then the other Scottish parties.
- And then add this: Every Holyrood election since 1999 has seen Labour make the case against independence “don't vote SNP - that means divorce, *insert token fear-mongering*” etc. The SNP have always responded by dodging the independence question and talking about what they'd do as a Scottish government. The result is that no one has seriously made the case for independence for 15 years. That's the context of today's polls, but won't be the context of the vote.
- You can't tweet for English pundits saying that Cameron secretly wants a 'yes' vote as it will enshrine a Tory majority forever. This is nonsense for two reasons. First, as Gerry Hassan has pointed out, "in post-war elections the Tories have only won a majority of the English vote once (1955), the same year they won a majority in Scotland". Scotland can't just be a plaster for Westminster's broken electoral system. Second, and more importantly, Cameron would become the Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister who lost the union. The grandees are already cross with him for failing to win the general election outright. Would he really survive that? Would he be willing to bet his career on it? Autumn 2014 probably means the end of the line for either Cameron or Salmond.
- Cameron is therefore desperate to stop this. And it seems their primary tactic will be confusion: Osborne is already attempting this around what the currency will be, what the position on the EU will be. This is clever because it causes a problem for the SNP. As democrats, the only honest answer – the one they give – is 'in the long term, that will be for the people of Scotland to decide'. But that doesn't calm the nerves.
- So, even if the SNP can't answer those questions, the rest of us need to know what we think on everything from currency to constitution, foreign policy to fiscal policy. For example, has St Andrew's University's famous International Relations department considered that they could well be the cornerstone of a Scottish foreign office in three year's time? Almost certainly not...
- On that note, since Osborne raises it as a choice between the pound and the Euro, the idea that Scotland can't have its own currency is ludicrous. Norway, with fewer people than Scotland, does. As do the Maldives, who have fewer people than Edinburgh.
- A yes vote must mean the end of the SNP. Like Fianna Fail and the ANC, this may well not happen. But national parties with no ideology are not healthy once their primary purpose has expired.
- Whether you are in favour of or against independence, it is an exciting prospect: a whole new player on the world scene, a new set of policies to write – a state born not in blood and fire, but in hope, dislike of Tories, and a mild “suppose we might as well” shrug. That's something to think about.
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