On Saturday, I went along to my first ever Better Together meeting. They were launching in my hometown of Falkirk, so it felt incumbent upon me to check out what the opposition were saying to a constituency I feel I know pretty well.
What struck the eye first of all, as I entered St Modan’s Parish Church, were the military lapel-badges on display, and the careful laying out of the four separate flags in the lobby: Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Well, quite. One wonders why Better Together are reluctant to show off in Falkirk the very Union Jack on behalf of which they’re campaigning.
The audience numbered around 80-90, admittedly decent, but far less than the 200 I heard one of their activists claim later. I’d say there were marginally fewer people than in the Yes Scotland meeting I’d attended at the same venue a year ago, and that we had slightly more young people in attendance, but in all honesty there wasn’t a massive difference. So there’s all to play for in Falkirk.
Every statement was prefaced with, ‘Of course I’m proud to be Scottish,’ but the evening made it very clear that the Scotland which they’re proud of is one that sits down, shuts its mouth and obeys Westminster. The Scotland which stands up for its own people absolutely horrifies them.
First up is Margaret Mitchell, Conservative. Perhaps knowing fine well that Tory schtick goes down badly in places like Falkirk, Mitchell goes instead for Salmond-bashing, questioning the SNP’s democratic mandate to hold a referendum and warning that there are no checks and balances against their power in Holyrood. Someone should tell her that these are things which happen when people vote in huge numbers for one particular party and when that party then makes good on a key election pledge. This great champion of democracy has nothing to say, of course, about the unelected House of Lords or the Tories governing Scotland with no mandate whatsoever. Revealingly, Mitchell throws in thanks to the press for ‘holding the SNP to account’, pretty much admitting that the media are doing the No campaign’s work for them. She then repeats the Unionist mantra about ‘our’ influence on the world stage, even though we’re all well aware that Westminster pulls these strings for its own ends, not ‘ours’.
Next comes Paul McGarry, a Lib Dem who calls himself a Scotophile, albeit one who believes that, ‘In ten years’ time this referendum will be a footnote in history’. Not a book. Not a chapter. McGarry loves Scotland so much he feels able to relegate one of the largest historical events we’ll ever experience to a footnote.
We can pretty much discount everything he says after that, but for the sake of the record it’s the usual. He tells us that the UK created the NHS and the Welfare State without adding that his party and the Tories are gleefully destroying them. It is pro-independence parties who are striving to protect them. He reminds us that, ‘This is not a general election and is not about a political party,’ which he might want to pass on to his No campaign colleagues, who fall over themselves to make it all about Alex Salmond and the SNP.
All the familiar, self-contradictory Unionist hobby-horses are here: the ‘volatile’ and ‘fluctuating’ curse of oil revenue, a problem other countries would give their eye-teeth for; the claim that the SNP have provided ‘no answers’, followed by a berating of them for the cost of providing those answers. That’s right, folks, the trillions of our money the UK government has wasted on Trident, bank bailouts, MPs’ expenses, tax cuts for the wealthy and wars in the Middle East don’t seem to trouble this crowd. No, what really gets their goat is the SNP spending a mere £800,000 on a White Paper which they’ve been demanding since the start of the debate
Further contradiction ensues. McGarry announces that ‘now is the time to begin the conversation about more powers for Scotland,’ before adding that, ‘Labour and the Lib Dems have already set out their vision’. Can anyone tell me what Labour’s ‘vision’ is for the aftermath of a No vote, apart from Douglas Alexander’s national talking-shop (sorry, ‘convention’), Gordon Brown’s insistence that Scottish tax revenue be diverted to needier parts of the UK, and the Shadow Home Secretary’s intimation that Scotland lose control over its NHS? As for the Liberal Democrats, their wispy ‘blueprint’ for a Federal Britain has already been debunked by Andrew Leslie.
McGarry turns to the burning local issue: Grangemouth. Like all Unionist sleights-of-hand, his assertion that Grangemouth was saved by Holyrood working together with Westminster contains a grain of truth. The Scottish government contributed a £9million grant to Ineos, while the UK government underwrote a loan worth £145million. It was Salmond, however, who was working round the clock to ensure that Grangemouth stayed open, while the UK’s Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, could only mouth to Parliament that Grangemouth’s closure was ‘regrettable’. Cameron didn’t even stay to hear about it. Salmond has since made the point that the Scottish government could have underwritten a similar loan, had it the economic powers to do so. It doesn’t, and so could only issue a grant. Saving Grangemouth, then, has cost the Scottish parliament £9million, cost the UK Exchequer nothing, and yet Better Together use this as an example of our ‘co-operation’.
The most impressive of the speakers is Labour’s Michael Connarty, partly because his talk is the only one with any economic substance. He is also the most disappointing panelist, given that his more honest pronouncements prove Yes’s case. He concedes that Scotland’s manufacturing base is not what he’d like it to be – nothing to do with Thatcherite policy foisted on Scotland? – then admits that London ‘would love to cut itself off from the rest of the UK’ and that ‘the City distorts Britain’s entire economy’. Very true, Michael. The metaphor which the No campaign like to employ about the Union is that of a family – because who wants to break up one of those? – but Connarty freely admits there is a drunken madman behind the wheel of this particular family car. And here he is, campaigning for Scotland to be permanently locked inside it as it heads for the cliff.
When one of the audience attempts to trash the Nordic model for an independent Scotland, Connarty counters that he’d very much like a ‘collectivist’ economy such as Norway’s, as opposed to rampant free-market capitalism. Do I need to state the obvious here? There are only three parties offering such a model – the SNP, the Greens and the SSP – and they all support independence. Connarty also makes various, not unreasonable complaints about the EU, specifically the way in which France and Germany use the strength of their economies to control those of other European nations. Nothing like the way in which London’s economy dominates Scotland, then? And if Connarty believes, as he states, that Salmond wants to create a ‘Scottish hegemony’ (over whom he didn’t make clear) then why isn’t he campaigning against the already-existing hegemony of the London rich, which oversees the people of Scotland?
Connarty’s favourite angle is to appeal for more powers for local councils. Edinburgh elites and London elites, he argues, amount to the same thing. Fine, but surely an exponent of ‘localised democracy’ would recognise that Edinburgh is more local than London. Perhaps this tactic has something to do with the fact that councils are the one remaining place where Labour have a strong presence, given the SNP’s control of Holyrood.
Connarty is the classic, natural Yes supporter whose party loyalty blinds them to the obvious. If Scottish independence is defeated, who does Connarty think will take the credit? David Cameron hasn’t lifted a finger in the debate – letting Scottish Labour do all the heavy lifting – but he’s the one English voters will believe has slayed the Scottish dragon, giving him a nice pre-election boost over Labour in 2015. A recent poll, furthermore, has found that of all the parties Scottish Labour stand to lose the most from a No vote. In the meantime, they further tarnish their rep by running a campaign alongside the Tories. Opposing independence is a lose-lose situation for Scottish Labour, could they but see it.
So to the questions-and-answer session, which provides an insight into the agenda, concerns and tactics of street-level Unionists. Disturbingly, a woman asks Margaret Mitchell how the Higher Education sector can help Better Together. The correct response should be: ‘Legally, it can’t. Schools, colleges and universities are bound by impartiality rules.’ Having already admitted, however, that the media are on their side, Mitchell implies further skullduggery:
“The Higher Education sector can help [emphasis mine] by presenting the facts as is. You have to be careful, but you can still give young people the facts fairly and objectively.”
At first glance this seems reasonable enough. But the question, remember, was, ‘How can the sector help the Better Together campaign?’ Given neither Mitchell nor the questioner are ‘objective’, whose ‘facts’, exactly, is she proposing that the sector advance? Her choice of language is considered, but her subtext is that college and university lecturers should use their position to put forth Unionist ‘facts’. Were it not so, why does Mitchell follow, ‘You have to be careful’ with a ‘but’? That the question was even asked shows that there are teachers out there happy to do this.
Other questions stray into Philip K.Dick ‘alternate history’ territory: would the panel agree that Scotland and England would have come together at some point anyway, even without the Act of Union? Some complain about the rest of the UK’s lack of say in the referendum outcome (implying, again, its illegitimacy). Worryingly, the panel reassure the audience that the rest of the UK will have its say after the referendum. Quite what this means is never made explicit, but one can only presume that they feel reprisals are in the post.
It is comforting to see that Better Together activists are just as anxious as we are about the outcome. I was expecting a swaggering cockiness, given some of the polls, but instead some on the floor berate the campaign for not being as articulate, passionate or young as Yes Scotland. One West Fife member complains that he is the only one in his area putting leaflets in doors. And there is a general concern about the inclinations of the Undecided. Mitchell reassures them that they have the young people on their side, citing the ‘Olympic effect’. ‘Ten years ago,’ she says, ‘If you went into a school and asked them if they wanted Scotland to be independent you’d see a few hands go up. Now when I ask them there are almost none.’
Quite what Margaret Mitchell is doing in schools asking pupils about their voting intentions is unclear, but she also thinks few of them will bother to vote, balancing things out again for Yes.
Better Together obviously intend to step up their campaign in time for the SNP’s White Paper on 26nd November. What worries them about this paper is that it provides the very ‘detail’ they’ve been claiming all along the SNP don’t have. Their first avenue of attack will be the cost of the project itself, which we can counter by reminding people that Cameron has a crack team of civil servants in Whitehall – taxpayer funded – briefing against independence.
Falkirk’s Better Together will be hitting the train stations on Tues 26th November, and it’s a fair bet that this will mirror their national campaign. Get there early and oppose their ‘facts’ with ours, so we can’t give them that ‘footnote in history’.