THE BLOG

Grand Coalitions Can't Take on Kippers and Nats

30/04/2014 16:58 BST | Updated 29/06/2014 10:59 BST

The wind is the sails of Britain's two big single-issue political campaigns: the Yes to Scottish independence campaign is closing the gap on No with less than five months to the September 18 referendum; UKIP, a YouGov poll at the weekend disclosed, has soared into the lead ahead of the May 22 European Parliament elections with its simple anti-EU platform. Both have more than survived savage criticism; they have thrived on it. Their opponents have been left floundering.

In Scotland one reason for the poor performance so far by the No campaign may be that it, unlike its pro-Yes opponents, is a grand coalition of political forces, Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem, business and unions. These are normally at loggerheads with each other over most economic and social issues, most notably austerity policies.

These fissures enabled Humza Yousaf MSP, external affairs minister, to neatly sidestep at a weekend conference appeals from the main three unionist parties to agree to urgent talks on more devolution if, in the end, Scotland votes No. Could they even agree among themselves on the timing, let alone on the content and scope of any such talks, he asked at the Future of the UK and Scotland conference in Glasgow. Annabel Goldie, Michael Moore and Drew Smith clearly could not.

UKIP and the SNP share virtually no policies but they are similar in proposing a simple, single solution to a continuing British crisis: get out of the EU on the one hand; abandon the 1707 Union on the other. The SNP and its allies, a few Labour dissidents, a handful of financial sector grandees, the Greens and the rump of the Scottish Socialist Party, have simply smothered any policy differences in favour of one big theme: Independence is the answer to all problems.

Experience shows that its opponents are suffering the baleful fate of many coalition campaigns. The Britain in Europe campaign of the late 1990s sought to capitalise on Tony Blair's huge first-term majority and argue for taking the UK into the euro via a referendum. Headed by political heavyweights such as Peter Mandelson and Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Charles Kennedy, Richard Branson and John Monks, and aided by people like Danny Alexander - sounds familiar, eh? - it flopped.

The big hitters of the Westminster Establishment thought they could pull off victory as in the 1975 plebiscite on UK membership of the then EEC. Instead, pulled this way and that by their bickering officials, more at home in the Manichean world of daily British politics, they failed to deliver a united, bold message. Insiders of that campaign say it could only ever agree on the lowest common denominator of policy and lacked, therefore, nimble reaction times and arresting statements. It was, in short, like Better Together some 15 years later.

Even today, the pro-EU campaign (with many of the same leaders) in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in May and the putative UK membership referendum in 2017 is a broad church out-witted by the single-issue simplicity of UKIP (as may well happen to the new cross-party campaign against 'euracism'). And they are not helped by the decision of the pan-EU political groups to choose as their "Spitzenkandidaten" or lead candidates to be European Commission president old, largely male, second-raters the bulk of the voters have never heard of (as we saw in the first televised debate on Monday). Both pro-Union campaigns can appear out-of-touch, elderly and boring as if the social media tools that secured Barack Obama's second term have not been invented.

The narrowing of the gap between No and Yes in recent polls suggests the urgent need for another re-think within the Better Together leadership and Westminster, not least about finding out what Scottish voters really want. Ironically, one way out of the mire might well be to let the different parts of this grand coalition speak to their own policy agenda rather than pretend they all share the same common goals: like Labour on its welfare plans or the Liberal Democrats on their tax devolution scheme. Gordon Brown's recent effective intervention on pensions came via the United with Labour campaign, not Better Together. At the same time, rebuttal of the SNP/Scottish Government's wishful thinking on issues such as currency union, EU membership or oil revenues needs to be swifter, sharper and more savage.

With less than five months to R-Day in Scotland, the pro-unionist camp needs to find the same energy and vigour as the SNP/Yes and UKIP.