This was the week when Better Together ramped it up. First, there was an intensifying of the spook ‘em tactics.
Thus, we had Bob Dudley suggesting that independence might not be a good thing for energy businesses like BP (though he was speaking in a personal capacity, you understand and not as CEO of BP). It would create currency uncertainty, increased costs for BP and threaten investment, all of it vague and unspecific. His remarks prompted rebuttal from commentators as diverse as Derek Bateman and Alex Massie. No matter, his intervention captivated the mainstream media: here was a big man, in charge of a big, very big business sharing thoughts on independence.
Fund managers are also increasingly nervous of the uncertainty and risks (no irony intended) and especially, the prospect of a separate regulatory system for financial institutions north and south of the border, should Scotland vote yes. James Clunie, a top fund manager - and having checked out his rep with someone who would know, this is a pretty accurate assessment – warned that big companies are already delaying investment decisions pending the outcome of the vote. It’s very scary, he said.
There was also Justin King, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s warning of higher food prices in supermarkets in an independent Scotland. From multi-billion pound industry and profit all the way down to the price of a pound of mince, the narrative is that independence doesn’t add up. And while some might dismiss the impact of 5p on a pound of a mince as a reason to vote no, it actually is these bread and butter (literally) economic issues which will matter to many voters still to make up their minds.
Along the way, there was an intervention by Caroline Flint, Labour’s energy spokesperson, who despite talking mince, probably gained sympathy plaudits on Newsnicht for trying to politely engage “Mr Ewing” in the debate only to be dealt with dismissively with bluster. Not a good tactic, Yes people. There was a Westminster debate in which a Lib Dem MP, Lord Thurso suggested that the lights would go out if we vote yes. And Margaret Curran suggesting the independence campaign needs to “get real” and start talking the language of “ordinary voters”. Expect more talk of mince then, though this was probably the most resonant intervention from all the BT folk and supporters in the week.
Today, we had the Chairman of one of the big oil engineering recruitment groups, Orion, saying that while he’d continue to live in an independent Scotland, he might have to run his business from elsewhere due to all the “uncertainty”.
Given all the dire warning emanating from distinguished that and renowned other on money, costs and jobs, it’s a surprise Scots didn’t just stay in their beds on Friday, waiting for the sky to fall in.
Good job we didn’t, for we’d have missed strand two of the new grand plan. In the political equivalent of putting on a Barry White record, apparently we Scots are to be made to feel loved and wanted. In perhaps the single most imaginative initiative to date in Better Together’s campaign, Rory Stewart MP, whose constituency runs to the border, launched Hands across the Border which aims to light beacons and unite 100,000 folk from the rest of the UK along Hadrian’s wall to show us how much they want the Scots to stay. How wonderful. All it needs is to be matched by a similar human chain from this side of the border to indicate we are not going anywhere and that we love the rest of the UK too.
Yesterday, it was clear the metropolitan elite had received a memo suggesting they get involved. David Aaronovitch was given 20 minutes of airtime on Radio Scotland on Saturday’s Good Morning Scotland programme to pick up on a personal attack apparently first begun in student days, on Lesley Riddoch. Given how several other male London chatterati got involved in twitter too, she clearly has ruffled a few feathers. Apparently, all this political “othering” between England and Scotland is inaccurate and misleading and determined to drive a wedge in the Union. To be honest, there was some truth in what Aaronovitch had to say, which is backed up by polls showing there is less difference between Scots and English on key social and political issues. Perhaps, of more interest, though is the timing of the highly personalised attack, designed to add to the mood music being generated by the Union’s defenders. Partly aiming to smother strong and resonant independent voices in the debate, but partly also to highlight similarity rather than difference. We are family, and all that.
Which leads us to the big set piece at the end of a long week of staging: the Prime Minister’s speech. From a formerly Olympian stage on Friday, he delivered a decidedly unOlympian speech, telling us how there are just “seven months” to save the Union. “We must do whatever it takes… you don’t have a vote but you do have a voice...” He urged family and friends in the rest of the UK to communicate with Scots they know telling them to please not go. All that was missing was for him to be played out by Baby Please don’t go, though there’s still time for Better Together at UK level to adopt it as its official anthem. The many versions of this classic could enable a highly targeted demographic appeal to be mounted. Yep, have that one for free. I’d like the Them version please.
All of this activity, warning of doom and disaster on the one hand by respected this and that, coupled with expressions of love, family and togetherness by an army of supposedly notables on the other, was fascinating to observe.
But entertaining as it all was, it was also pretty pointless. Because very little of it will have any effect or impact on Scots’ voting intention.
Indeed, Dr Matt Qvortrup – in no one’s camp, for the record – had an interesting piece in the Scotsman demonstrating evidence of a counter-intuitive impact of “big I ams” from any field intervening on big issue questions. It tends to make ordinary folk do the opposite.
But then, we already know that about the Scots. No nation is better at harbouring tall poppy resentment. The phrase “ah ken yer faither” still has currency here because it is regularly trotted out – and I have heard it and derivations of it – whenever someone gives the impression of getting above themselves. It is an attitude not just designed to burst bubbles, but also to make clear that everyone’s opinion is valid, that there is no hierarchy of veracity nor weight of views just because they happen to be held and freely shared (whether invited or not) by folk with entitlements, money, rank or education. While occasionally deployed in petty and mean ways, at its heart, such a mindset displays a wilful egalitarianism, best articulated in Burns’s A Man’s A Man for A’ That. It might not be a uniquely Scottish value, having clear links to an internationally socialist belief system, but it probably is more evident in modern day Scottish values than in British or English ones. A difference to note then, Mr Aaronovitch.
While Better Together might like to think that it and supporters of the Union “telt” the Scots a thing or two this week, they might wish to remember that actually, the Scots are not great at being “telt” on anything much.
There are couples we all know who appear not to be able to live together nor live apart. They bicker and feud all marriage or partnership long, neither finding much to like or praise about the other. Often, the banter is good-natured, if a little wearing for its audience, and some really do like an audience. They tend not to put on such a performance when it’s just the two of them and rub along just dandy with small kindnesses and shared habits, born of living closely together. Secret rituals which puzzle the onlooker.
Others though, have you wincing at the barbs and the taunts and wondering why they don’t just split up. Having voiced this to a few such couples I’ve encountered in my time, the reaction is almost one of disbelief. The thought has never occurred to them. Or if it has, there are ready excuses as to why they stay.
Occasionally, you get to witness sublime moments of affection, instances which make you truly stop and wonder and admire. But then they go and spoil it. Back to business as usual, the default setting of a pattern of ingrained behaviour, a cycle which neither are willing nor wont to break.
A bit like the SNP and Labour over the bedroom tax. Here is an issue upon which both parties are agreed in opposing, for largely similar reasons. Listen to any MSP from either party and you’d be hard pushed to determine which is which. Holyrood’s welfare reform committee is united in demanding its downfall.
At first, Labour called on the SNP government to do more with the powers we have in Scotland to mitigate against its pernicious effects. The SNP was unmoved. Both parties have said they will abolish it, Labour if it wins the 2015 UK General election, the SNP if Scotland votes yes in September and assumes powers over welfare and benefits.
Both parties have made efforts at local government level to find routes around it, though some local administrations appear not to have got their party memos and have justified not doing anything with the powers they have to address it. Often it’s been as petty as if the Labour/SNP opposition group moves for a stand to be taken, the Labour/SNP led administration refuses to support it.
Find £50 million from the Scottish budget, Labour cried. You could if you really wanted to, they blustered. Tell us what you’d cut instead, the SNP demanded. We would if we could, the party of government countered.
And then, yesterday, a breakthrough. The Depute First Minister has indeed found the necessary readies to offset its impact but needs Westminster to allow the Scottish Government to breach its arbitrary rules on housing discretionary grant.
Labour’s response? Effusive acclamation? Dinna be daft. Apparently, that’s not what the Scottish Government should be doing. Apparently it should be adopting and advocating a scheme developed in East Lothian which appears to achieve the same effect as Jackie Baillie’s bill without the need for legislation.
The SNP’s response? Rejoicing that a further solution has been found? Naw. Our way or no way it would appear.
It would cost both parties zilch to welcome each other’s efforts to find solutions. Even if they had to grit their teeth, surely they could share this platform and demonstrate their determination to find common cause. That occasionally we can be better together when we find ways of going it alone.
But so used have they become to the snipe of day to day politics, they cannot even countenance a ceasefire. By habit and repute, they are set on a course of constant arty bargy, desperate to find the next stair heid in which to stage a rammy.
And we the voters, the onlookers are left scratching our heads in bewilderment. Is it too late to hope that they could all stop for a moment and reflect on why they came into politics in the first place?