Gaining the High Ground

Published: 22 May 2014

Political scientists have long known that winning elections is often not a matter of having detailed policies and distinguishing oneself from one’s opponents. Instead, it is a matter of seizing ownership of issues on which there is broad agreement and defining them on your own terms. So historically, the Conservatives have ‘owned’ the issue of law and order, until New Labour tried to edge in. Conversely, Labour has usually owned the NHS, forcing the Conservatives to assure electors that it is safe in their hands. Usually, this is not a matter of detailed policy, but of a broad identification with shared values.

Four broad fields have been contested in the current referendum campaign and, while neither side has clearly won, the Yes side’s has been unexpectedly  successful in cornering them. The first field is ‘Scotland’, an attractive theme, given the widespread sentiment of identification with the nation. This is obvious territory for the SNP but the unionist parties in the past have played it very successfully, standing up for Scotland against London and playing Scottishness into a plurinational vision of what it means to be British. Since the devolution and the advance of the SNP, however, they have been defensive and seemingly unable to play the Scottish card.

This takes us to our second field, that of union. Here the unionist parties should have the advantage. Yet they have lost it by portraying the union as a unitary state and playing Britishness as somehow distinct and superior to Scottishness, with the latter reduced to a secondary identity. They seem at times intent on inventing  Britishness in a form in which it never existed. They have failed to appreciate that the Union and Britishness are not a single thing, but take very different forms in its component parts, so that Scottish unionism is not the same as English unionism, while Northern Irish unionism is a very different creature again. Alex Salmond, on the other hand, with his six unions (political; European; monarchical; monetary; defence; European) of which he only wants to end one, has captured traditional unionist discourse brilliantly. Talk of the ‘islands’ and family links among the nations is another traditional unionist trope which the nationalists have deployed with success.

The third field is that of welfare, historically a Labour possession. The Yes side have latched onto the UK coalition’s welfare reforms to suggest that Scotland would be a more caring society. On the other side, Scottish Labour insists that welfare is essentially a UK matter and that the UK is essentially about welfare. This puts them at odds with their Conservative partners on the No side, and implies that only a Labour Government in Westminster can save the union. It also ignores the fact that under the existing devolution settlement, many welfare services (if not the cash transfers) are devolved and that Scotland (including Scottish Labour) has often taken a distinct position. More widely, the whole field of welfare is rapidly changing and rescaling so that Scotland, as well as the UK (and indeed Europe) should be seen as a level of social solidarity.

The fourth field is that of the economy, public spending and taxation. Here the unionists also have a built-in advantage, given the obvious risks of independence. The economy still seems to play in the unionists’ favour, especially among more risk-averse electors, yet the unionists here too risk undermining their own position. By implying that Scotland could not prosper on its own, they may suggest that Scots are not capable of managing their own affairs. The idea that Scottish public services and pensions depend on the generosity of English taxpayers will not play well back in England. The notion that expenditure is allocated across the UK on the basis of need is frankly implausible, as Richard Wyn Jones has noted in a recent blog.  The unionist parties have not, and cannot, give assurances that Scotland’s levels of expenditure will be protected after a No vote and, by drawing attention to the issue, they risk undermining their own arguments.

Everyone is in favour of Scotland, fraternity among the nations, social welfare and prosperity, whatever their detailed policy proposals. Scotland is not a nationally or ethnically divided society, in which the parties make distinct appeals to different communities but one in which there is a lot of common ground. A successful political strategy requires that these shared themes be linked together in a plausible and reassuring way. Exploring economic scenarios, doing the financial arithmetic and unravelling the mysteries of the Barnett Formula is essential work and it is vital that citizens should have this information in an accessible way; but only when these are woven into a convincing story, however, will they sway the undecided electors.

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