By Alexander Smith (author of Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives)
This week’s launch of the ‘Better Together’ or ‘No’ campaign (as it will be better-known colloquially) for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum means that the battle over Scotland’s constitutional future now begins in earnest.
It comes just weeks after First Minister Alex Salmond launched the ‘Yes’ campaign in an attempt to regain the political momentum after the SNP fell short of its self-declared goals in the local government elections held on the 5th of May.
Although emerging with more local Councillors and votes than any other political party in Scotland, the Nationalists failed to wrest control of Glasgow City Council after an epic struggle with their ‘auld enemy’, the Scottish Labour Party.
Supporters of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom now sense that the tide is turning in their favour.
It is certainly true that the challenges ahead for the Scottish Nationalists in winning the referendum campaign should not be underestimated. The latest opinion polling suggests that, after recently peaking at just shy of 40%, support for independence has now dropped to 35% amongst Scottish voters.
With 55% of the electorate behind them, those opposed to independence remain in the majority.
These figures reinforce a pattern, which has remained consistent since the opening of the Scottish Parliament over a decade ago, that demonstrates no more than about a third of Scots support independence.
To break through this electoral glass ceiling, the SNP needs to maximise the institutional resources at its disposal, in local government, the media, the Scottish Parliament and the wider community.
That was why their unsuccessful effort to destroy the Labour Party’s powerbase in Glasgow – Scotland’s largest city – mattered so much to the Nationalists.
Convincing sceptical voters to take a leap into the constitutional dark and back independence remains a massive mountain for the SNP to climb between now and the 2014 referendum.
But supporters of the constitutional status quo cannot afford to be complacent.
For now, ‘No’ campaigners may have public opinion on their side. But a lot could change before the 2014 referendum.
Leading figures from Scotland’s three main Unionist parties will feature prominently in the campaign to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom.
Although former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be conspicuous by his absence from the front ranks of the ‘No’ campaign, his former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling will be leading the charge for Labour in Scotland.
He will be joined by the well-regarded former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy as well as the relatively-popular (for a Scottish Tory) Annabel Goldie, who led the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament until 2011.
Whether these three contrasting political personalities can agree to share the media spotlight and successfully work together over the next two years to secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom will prove fascinating to watch.
Indeed, it may prove particularly difficult for the ‘No’ campaign to maintain a united front when the SNP at Holyrood rails against austerity and the budget cuts being handed down by the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.
Sharing a platform north of the English border with both the Tories and the now-reviled Liberal Democrats could be especially challenging for Labour politicians sitting on the opposition benches at Westminster.
And in Alex Salmond – the undisputed leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign – they will continue to face one of Britain’s most astute, charismatic and emotionally intelligent politicians. In recent weeks, he has capitalised on confusion amongst the Unionist parties in the run-up to the launch of the ‘No’ campaign and will no doubt mercilessly exploit divisions amongst his opponents over the next two years.
So far, there have been bold claims made on both sides in their efforts to capture newspaper headlines and rally their supporters.
For the ‘Yes’ campaign, Salmond has called for 1 million Scots to sign a pledge in support of independence in the run-up to the referendum. Meanwhile, the ‘No’ campaign has declared that it will raise a war chest of £1 million to fight the Nationalists in 2014.
But big talk calls for a big vision for Scotland’s future, within – or outwith – the United Kingdom.
Over the next two years, Salmond will be hoping that the enthusiasm many Scottish voters feel for his government at Holyrood will translate into support for independence. He also knows that to win this argument, he must articulate a positive vision for the future and tell a story of a Scotland capable of standing – and prospering – on its own two feet.
To derail his arguments, Unionist politicians may be tempted to run a negative campaign that seeks to exploit anxieties amongst Scottish voters over the economic uncertainties facing Scotland and the UK as a whole.
They will likely point to the recent experiences of small countries and fragile economies on the periphery of Europe, such as Iceland, Ireland, Greece or Portugal. And they will ask whether Scotland can really fend for itself financially, especially if as an independent country it can no longer rely on the Barnett formula or lucrative UK defence contracts to subsidise its economy?
In addition, the ‘No’ campaign could muddy the waters for the Nationalists further, distracting them with wearying questions of constitutional banality, such as what passports Scots would carry or whether customs would have to be paid at the English border.
While it is likely that a focus on the negative consequences and practical uncertainties of independence may help ‘No’ campaigners win the referendum, it is also true that they need to make an equally positive case for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.
Without doing so, Unionist politicians may risk sounding overly negative against a confident, clear-eyed and optimistic narrative from Alex Salmond, who will champion the promise of an independent Scotland able to decide and act for itself on the world stage.
This could alienate Scottish voters and, in turn, further entrench the SNP as the natural party of government in Scotland – even if it loses the 2014 referendum.
Such a result would be disastrous for the Scottish Labour Party, which is hoping to regroup and fight back after seeing off the Nationalists’ formidable challenge to its Glasgow stronghold in May.
The ‘No’ campaign has now been launched and the battle for Scotland’s constitutional future has been joined.
The stakes remain high for both sides.
The next two years will prove decisive in the history of both Scotland and the United Kingdom – whether or not the former elects to leave the latter in 2014.
Dr Alex Smith is a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and the author of ‘Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives: banal activism, electioneering and the politics of irrelevance’ (2011, Manchester University Press).