Last week, Better Together – the no campaign that isn’t – launched. I waited for the analysis, the acres of print picking apart every sentence and nuance and then putting it all back together again in a form that suits the journalists. But there was very little, except for in the Scotsman for whom keeping the referendum in the news has become an obsession. Whether we like it or not.
Either the journalists were largely content with the launch’s achievements or – after two hours of hearing earnest testimony from ordinary people – they were bored into submission.
But apart from a nice speech from Alistair Darling – and let’s not be churlish, it was a good speech – there was nothing really to report. It’s not even clear who’s leading this charabanc. Darling yes, but Johann Lamont was there too. Apparently, Annabel Goldie and Charles Kennedy represent the other parties, but Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie appeared in some of the photos. Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s fresh faced Lothians MSP, was given a starring role interviewing some of the ordinary people who believe in the Union, so she too merited a few lines. A cast of thousands might seem like a strength, though beware the old maxim – never mind the quality, feel the width.
The leaflet produced to accompany the launch purports to spell out how we are Better Together. But the retreaded statements offer nothing new, come precariously close to sare-mongering and are specious nonsense. Yes, there are thousands of Scots employed in UK government roles, but a fully independent Scottish government would need these jobs. Indeed, there would be more government jobs available to Scots than are currently. In any event, with the ConDems at the helm, by the time we get to 2014, there could be far fewer of these folk in government/public sector jobs thanks to their austerity policies.
There were other vacuous claims in the leaflet but there isn’t a version on the threadbare website to help me recall what they were. Never mind, if I tell my friends about Better Together, I can have a free badge. Given that it doesn’t specify that I say nice things, I expect mine in the post. Or do blog readers not count?
If YesScotland seemed not to have all its ducks in a row when it launched, then Better Together appears not to have rounded its ducks up yet. I’m all for plain language and making things easy for everyone to understand, but I think we need a little more intellectual rigour than “times are really tough at home and really turbulent internationally“. Nor do I think the fact that “we have Embassies around the world” will turn out to be a deal-clincher.
For all the claims that there is a positive case to be made for staying in the UK, Better Together has, so far, done very little to propose it, other than trot out the same tired, old scaremongering arguments, subtly disguised as reasons. They are trying to be positive but they just can’t help themselves.
Nor were they helped by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Just as Alistair Darling donned his cloak of darkness to opine that independence represented a “one way ticket to send our children to a deeply uncertain destination” (an accompanying shiver was obligatory), up pops the PM in London to set out his stall for more welfare reform.
The ink is not yet dry on the last lot, and very little of it has actually been implemented. Already, though, the cultural shift has started with disabled people, with very real and genuine conditions which limit their ability to work without support, are being hounded off their benefits. Lone parents are being told – despite there being no law yet in force – that unless they agree to work-related activity, their benefits will be stopped. Citizens Advice Bureaux and specialist helplines are chokka with people burnishing threatening letters from DWP.
Yet, the big changes have still to come. Helpfully – for the Yes Scotland campaign – they will hit some time in early 2014. No matter, the PM is rolling up his sleeves and shoring up the core support in the marginal seats in middle England by promising more. Vulnerable people are, after all, an easy target – much easier than bankers and tax avoiders.
Key among his proposals is a suggestion that regional benefit levels could be set, enabling the UK government to provide a lesser support payment to a family with a disabled child in Scotland than in the South East of England, justifiable on the grounds of higher living costs there and ignoring completely the fact that such families have higher living costs more generally.
But Better Together insists that our interdependence is one key reason why we are stronger in the United Kingdom. Shame no one told the Prime Minister then.
And herein lies the anti-independence campaign’s biggest problem. With hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts still to come, with austerity on the menu for the foreseeable future, with a scale of welfare reform likely to touch every single household and family in Scotland, and with a UK Government determined to dismantle all that we hold dear across these islands, it will become increasingly difficult to state with any authority that we really are better together.
Just as we need cogent reasons to vote to go, we will also need persuasive arguments to stay. The latter might be in short supply by autumn 2014.