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If You Tolerate YES Then Your Children Will Be Next; How to Save the Union From the SNP

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This blog post is a follow-up to this one, entitled 'Building a Majority for Scottish Independence'. In this post, I am focusing on the tactics of the pro-union side. I support Scottish independence, so I don't want to see the NO campaign winning in 2014. However, it's important that those who support a YES vote consider the tactics that they may use.

The first point to make is that the NO campaign has one obvious advantage, which is that if the vote was held tomorrow then they would win comfortably. With that in mind it's clear that their main task is to maintain their current support level. In contrast, those who favour a YES vote need to increase their support by around 50% in less than two years.

The campaign is lead by Better Together, a coalition that includes Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Better Together is a less formal organisation than Yes Scotland, and that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. The parties already have their established supporters so they're likely to focus their energies on running their own individual campaigns to keep them onside. Support for the union is probably broader than support for independence, but that breadth would be undermined if the parties were forced into taking fixed lines and shared positions on some of the more controversial issues, like EU membership, Trident and economic strategy.

The unionist are likely to ignore Yes Scotland for as long as possible. It benefits them to treat the referendum as a choice between the union and the specific policies of the SNP. The reason for this is because support for the SNP has always outstripped support for independence, so long as the SNP are seen to speak for the campaign it will be much harder to engage with new supporters. The recent furore over EU legal advice showed that the unionist parties can be very effective when they are attacking from all angles. If the NO campaign can successfully paint their opponents as naive fanatics then they can turn the campaign into a battle of misplaced hearts against sensible and realistic minds.

One weakness of this approach is that the deciding votes will come from those who aren't members or supporters of any political party. While politicians can do strong internal campaigns they are not well placed to attract those who are cynical about politics in general. For that reason Better Together will have to branch out and find non political spokespeople, even if keeping debate limited to the narrow parameters of party politics is beneficial for the time being. The argument they make should be based on the fact that Britain means all things to all people and therefore there's no one overarching reason for the union, instead there are many unique, different and positive ones. This strategy was central to their initial campaign video, but has not been particularly evident since.

The biggest risk the unionists face is probably being seen to say no a lot. It's an easy message to maintain for a couple of months, but not for two years. Even if some of their predictions are true they will need to inject more positivity into their campaign, otherwise they risk being undermined by a narrative that paints a gloomy picture. Relentless negativity would definitely undermine the long term credibility of the campaign and the union itself. However, the parties will be worried that if they concede any ground then they are accepting the intellectual arguments of the nationalists.

In some ways the confirmation that there won't be a second question is a gift for the NO campaign. In theory it gives them the chance to re-define devolution. All polling suggests that a majority of the electorate support more powers for Scotland, which means that the unionist parties have a degree of flexibility in outlining their visions. The Liberal Democrats have already outlined their image for home rule, and Labour has formed a committee to develop their policy. If the Tories do the same then there is a very good chance that going into 2014 all of the unionist parties will support greater powers for the parliament. This would give them the chance to engage with civic society and try to create an on-going discussion with the nation about the parliament they want.

As things stand the polls are stubborn, and for the unionists the task is clear. If they can maintain their current support then they will win. The ways that they will aim to do this include conflating the specific policies of the SNP with the realities of independence, creating doubt about the tough technical questions and then offering the positive promise of greater powers in the result of a NO vote, if they manage to do all of these things properly then they will be very hard to beat.