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Scottish Independence: Who Can Take on Alex Salmond in the Battle to Save the Union?

Posted: 11/01/2012 11:02

With Alex Salmond announcing that his government has a mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the next few years look set to be the most important in 300 years of union.

During the next few months battle lines will be drawn, blows traded and claim and counter claim tested to their limits. But is the unionist campaign ready to go to war? In the age of personality politics any successful campaign needs a figurehead - a high profile spokesperson who can champion their cause. But who is the ying to Alex Salmond's separatist yang? What politician can best deliver the case for a United Kingdom and win over the Scottish public? The answer is not as simple as you might think.

Like it or loathe it, in the modern political age, personality matters. For a high profile campaign to succeed you need easily identifiable spokespeople with whom the public associates. To illustrate this, you only have to look as far as Alex Salmond, who has successfully cast himself as 'Mr Scotland' (see this canny political broadcast to see why) and delivered where previous SNP leaders have failed - securing a historic vote on independence. The worry for Unionists is that there is not an obvious Scottish candidate with whom the public could identify as fighting for a United Kingdom.

In fact it is much easier to rule out than suggest candidates. The first and rather obvious elimination is anyone associated with the Conservative party. Put simply, if the unionist campaign is serious about winning then its spokesperson must not be a true blue, or any shade of blue for that matter. Boasting a meagre one seat in Scotland and with polling suggesting the public fear the Conservatives are more interested in the welfare of the English, a Conservative figure is an instant no go. To ignore this advice would be to play into Salmond's hands - making the independence vote a referendum on Scottish vs English interests.

For similar reasons, I don't think it is politically feasible for a Liberal Democrat to front the campaign. Firstly there aren't exactly many Scottish candidates to choose from, with Danny Alexander initiating unpopular spending cuts and Charles Kennedy sadly seeming to slide into political memory. But as Liberal Democrat pollsters are beginning to find out, the public views them as Tory stooges and rightly or wrongly feels they are a front for an essentially Tory government.

This is not the impression you want the campaign to give, unless you are Alex Salmond of course.

That's why in my view the campaign must be led by a member of the Labour party. However the strength of the unionist campaign - that it is a cross party campaign which brings together an enviable alliance of supporters - is actually its big weakness when it comes to choosing its champion.

Namely, it makes it difficult for actively serving Labour politicians to head it up. Why is this? Well imagine a situation where say, Jim Murphy was up against Alex Salmond and the unionists triumphed. Who is likely to get most credit for this victory? It is a reasonable assumption that the Labour party would claim, with some justification, that it was them that 'saved the union'.

Nothing says 'look we are electable again' quite like saving a 300 year union and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be wary (or at least should be) of handing them this open goal.

For this reason the list of candidates continues to shrink and the campaign is likely to have little choice but to look to the big beasts of the past. Names like former Labour minister John Reid have swirled around and even, amongst slightly optimistic circles, Gordon Brown's name has been mentioned.

Who would be my pick? I'd look no further than Alistair Darling, a man whose ambition for frontbench politics seems to be over and whom history seems to judge more kindly than a large number of his predecessors. Will he be good enough to beat the skilled operator that is Alex Salmond? I'm not sure. But as the Mirror once famously remarked, he could prove the 'safe pair of eyebrows' that the campaign needs.

 

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