Keen followers of the Scottish media may have noticed that since the start of the year there’s been little sight of the phrase “the positive case for the Union”. Perhaps buoyed by opinion polls showing little movement, the No camp has more or less abandoned even the pretence of positivity and concentrated on the tactic it’s most familiar and comfortable with – carpeting Scotland with fearbombs.
The last couple of days have been no exception. At the Scottish Tory conference David Cameron repeated the curiously vague threat that an independent Scotland might not be allowed to keep the pound, and yesterday in Westminster the Home Secretary dropped (implausible) hints that Scots might not be allowed to keep UK passports.
But wait a minute. Why so shy?
The reason these issues are constantly raised by the Unionist side is that polls indicate Scots definitely want to keep the pound, and nobody ever wants to give up a passport once they’ve got one – the more “nationalities” you have, the easier it is to smooth your passage around the world.
Similarly, the reason the Yes campaign, and the SNP in particular, is pursuing a “don’t frighten the horses” strategy minimising the amount of upheaval a Yes vote will produce is because nobody likes upheaval – even if it’s for the best of reasons – let alone forced upheaval.
Moving house is a pain, even when you’re moving to a nicer one in a better area. The worst dump in a terrible neighbourhood can still seem tempting compared to spending weeks packing everything you own into boxes, handing thousands of pounds to Pickfords to move it and then unpacking it all again.
Under that strategy – to the chagrin of radicals who seem oddly perplexed about the correct arrrangement of a cart and a horse – the Nats insist that we’ll still be British, we’ll still have the Queen, we’ll still be in NATO and we’ll still be able to watch Doctor Who, while Unionists shriek that we’d become some sort of isolated North Korea-style pariah state sealed away from the rest of the world in a hermetic barbed-wire bubble.
Or rather, they say we might.
And that’s the odd thing about the Westminster fear campaign – despite having been given repeated opportunities to do so, neither David Cameron nor George Osborne (or anyone else) will actually come out and say that the rUK would, for example, definitely refuse to enter a currency union with an independent Scotland.
The reason they won’t is that – as pointed out by “Better Together” campaign chairman Alistair Darling – a currency union would be overwhelmingly the only sane thing for the two nations to do. Nobody could stop Scotland using Sterling (a fully tradeable global currency any nation can adopt if it wants to without requiring the UK’s permission) in any event, but the chances that the rUK would refuse to co-operate with a currency union with Scotland are zero. You can quote us on that.
But that doesn’t explain why the UK parties don’t say it wouldn’t. If Cameron and Osborne stood up and stated unambiguously that they would refuse to enter a currency union after a Yes vote, or if Theresa May said categorically that Scots definitely WOULDN’T be allowed to keep their UK passports, it’d undoubtedly be a huge blow to the Yes campaign.
(And if we’ve learned nothing else from the last 15 years of British politics, it’s that politicians’ pledges aren’t worth the giant placards they’re printed out onto. They could say it without actually meaning it, and nobody would bat much of an eyelid when they went back on it afterwards.)
So why don’t they? Let’s look at some possible explanations.
1. Maintaining positivity
A flat-out explicit threat would look like bullying, and if one thing might just rile Scots into voting Yes it’d be the feeling that they were being railroaded by a bunch of Eton toffs.
Cameron’s public pronouncements have been much more along the lines of wanting to keep the Union together because we’re one big happy family, and the recent “Better Together London” launch spoke of getting expat Scots to “lovebomb” their family and friends back home with tales of how sad England and the other nations would be to lose us.
But it seems to stretch credibility to suggest that these barely-veiled threats are any less bad in that respect than open ones. Reported in the media with screaming clickbait headlines, all nuance is lost and they come across as the very thing they’re trying to avoid being. By the time the qualifiers and disclaimers have appeared two-thirds of the way into the articles the damage has been done.
2. The shock doctrine
It may be, of course, that the advocates of the Union are simply keeping this particular powder-keg dry, in order to deploy it in the last weeks or days before the poll. A sudden announcement in early September 2014 that the rUK would seek to recall all its passports and wouldn’t enter into a currency union would leave the Yes camp no time to counter the wave of fear.
But it would also inevitably look deeply suspicious, and even panicky. It’s a high-risk “Hail Mary” tactic to unleash after spending the best part of three years being evasive on the subject.
3. The myth of more powers
The non-committal approach could also be an attempt to protect the narrative that a No vote will result in the greatly-enhanced devolution settlement that’s still the constitutional preference of around a third of Scots – a constituency who will effectively decide the referendum according to which of the two available options they consider the least bad.
Persuading wavering voters that Westminster is keen to devolve more powers to Holyrood after a No vote will be a tougher sell if the UK parliament plays such uncompromising hardball at this stage, because it doesn’t depict a government interested in co-operation and negotiation.
Then again, given how incredibly stupid anyone would have to already be to believe that a No vote will result in more powers for the Scottish Parliament, it’s a push to imagine that a few half-hearted caveats are going to win any of the sceptical votes in that sector over.
4. The fragile recovery
The No camp has spent most of the last 18 months issuing dire warnings about the “uncertainty” caused by the referendum and how it would cripple investment, enterprise and growth. Last week saw that particular fox well and truly shot, but the surest way to create real uncertainty would be for the UK government to effectively declare economic war on an independent Scotland in advance.
The UK’s current “recovery” is a pitifully weak runt of a thing, and such announcements would surely cause a great many businesses to put expansion plans on hold for years. (Because after the referendum there’d also be a looming general election, delaying any kind of “certainty” right into summer 2015.) Cameron and Osborne simply can’t afford that risk.
But the threat of non-co-operation is useless after the referendum – if Scotland DOES vote Yes, there’s no point in the rUK government being hostile to a major trading neighbour. If the UK government refuses to directly say that it’ll refuse a currency union now, it has nothing to gain from doing so afterwards. So that can’t be the reason either.
5. The risk of backfire
The most interesting hypothesis, then, might be that Unionists don’t want to risk the Yes camp exploring what might turn out to be popular alternatives.
For example, there seems to be widespread support at least within the independence movement for an independent Scottish currency. If Westminster definitively ruled out sharing Sterling at this point, Alex Salmond and Blair Jenkins would have a year and a half to sell that fundamentally-attractive idea to the Scottish electorate.
Similarly, with passports, the thought of being absolutely forced by Westminster to choose between Scottish and British identities might not work out too well for the “British” side, given that even Scots who claim to be both prioritise their Scottish identity over their British one by a large margin.
54% of Scots classify themselves as either “Scottish not British” or “more Scottish than British”, with just 11% favouring the opposite definitions and 31% ranking both identities equally. The UK parties almost certainly don’t want to concentrate Scottish voters’ minds on that question even as a threat, because it inevitably gives rise to nationalistic feelings – a free gift to Yes Scotland.
It seems, then, that the only reason the No camp is being so wishy-washy over its “warnings” is that if they were to actually pull out the revolver and point it openly at Scots, we’d be able to see there were no bullets in the barrel. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely that there isn’t even a revolver, just someone pointing their fingers at us through their jackets.
As far as the supporters of independence go, the parties of the Union certainly aren’t pleased to see us. But they haven’t got a pistol in their pocket either.