It seems that both Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie have realised that there is definitely going to be another referendum. And that it is not going to be possible for British nationalists to deploy the same lying, scaremongering tactics as before. I suppose they are to be commended for their willingness to change. But let’s not be fooled into imagining that they do so with any enthusiasm. They really had no choice.
To a very considerable extent, the divide in the first referendum campaign was not so much between Yes and No as between those who had questioned the political union between Scotland and England and those who had never even thought about the matter. That is why there was never a coherent case for the union such as we were constantly being promised. You can’t make a persuasive argument for (or against) something unless you have first examined it; scrutinised it; challenged it. The Yes campaign was built on the foundation of a long tradition of asking awkward questions about the constitutional settlement. It drew on three centuries of internal debate concerning every aspect of the political union. The anti-independence camapign had nothing remotely similar.
The initial Better Together message was no more sophisticated than an imperious command to, “Just say NO!”. No need to think about it. The union is fine because… well… because it’s old! It’s all any of us have ever known. What’s the point in changing anything? Besides! Everybody knows that “Bigger is Better!”.
From there it descended into the grindingly negative litany of mainly economic doom-mongering (because nobody does doom-‘n’-gloom like a hired economist) that it remained right up to the final stages when, in a fit of panic, the infamous “Vow” was cobbled together, adding empty promises to the “smears and fears”. It was a campaign which would have shamed all who were involved, but for the fact that they were rendered impervious to shame by their arrogant self-righteousness.
The No vote was a triumph of fear over hope. But it was a hollow victory. At one of the counts in the miserable early hours of the Friday morning when the outcome was clear, I recall speaking to a senior figure in Scottish Labour who had the good grace to shake my hand and offer his commiserations. In my exhausted and distracted state, I don’t recall whether I actually said the words or merely had the thought, but it certainly occurred to me at that point that they had fought what was essentially a party political campaign. They had won that campaign. But, in the process, they had lost the country. How true that has turned out to be.
In the whole of the two years of the last referendum campaign the unionists never once addressed the fundamental constitutional question. The whole purpose of their effort was, not to win people over, but to brow-beat them into submission.
The next referendum campaign will be very different. To whatever extent there may be a single anti-independence campaign along the lines of Better Together, it will not be able to rely on the methods of Project Fear. It will be less able to avoid the fundamental constitutional issue. It will be forced to face intense scrutiny of the union, and try to come up with satisfactory answers to penetrating questions.
The No campaign, if there is such a thing, will be obliged to campaign on the basis of what the union actually is, rather than on the basis of luridly dystopian fictions about what independence might bring.
Dugdale and Rennie appear to have had it brought home to them that leaders who attempt a rerun of the earlier anti-independence campaign are highly likely to part company with members and voters who are now better informed and no longer susceptible to scare stories. They will be dealing with people more inclined to question the worth of the political union. They will be addressing an electorate that is less likely to be unthinkingly enamoured of the British state.
Dugdale and Rennie have had to accept that independence can no longer be represented as unthinkable. Because there are just too many people thinking about it.