Andy Maciver: Lessons for next independence debate

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For those of you who are tiring of our referendum debate, here’s some solace. Today, there are only five weeks to go.

If we look back over the last two years, we can identify arguably the two most important moments.

One was the announcement by the so-called “Three Chancellors” that they would refuse to enter into a currency union with an independent Scotland. Uncertainty is a killer for the Yes campaign, especially amongst women, and as uncertainties go there’s little more worrying than an uncertainty over money. That announcement has proven to be a genuine game-changer.

The second was the STV debate last week. In itself, I rather suspect the debate did not shift many votes. However, its aftermath, characterised by the narrative that Alistair Darling left Alex Salmond in tatters over the currency issue, is likely to take its toll on the Yes campaign. Very little else has been talked or written about in the media since then, and that is likely to continue until the next debate, on the BBC in a couple of weeks.

Where should each campaign go from here in preparation for the BBC debate?

If I were advising the No campaign, I’d say two things. Firstly, stick to detail. The Yes campaign – unnecessarily in my view – has walked straight into a rabbit trap on issues such as currency and EU membership. It has become dependent on the goodwill of others for its ‘narrative’ to hold, and as Messrs Barroso and Juncker and the Three Chancellors, have shown, that goodwill is not forthcoming. Darling needs to maintain his forensic analysis of these issues which, coupled with his experience as chancellor and as a government minister operating in the EU, sounds plausible and realistic.

The second piece of advice I’d give to the No campaign is not to get complacent. Political commentators decided that Darling gave Salmond a monstering in the TV debate. But how many of the 1.7 million “normal” people watching agreed? Isn’t it plausible that what they saw was a calm, statesmanlike Alex Salmond and an irate, finger-pointing Alistair Darling?

And where should the Yes campaign go from here? There are two key changes Salmond needs to make. Firstly, he needs a better answer on the currency issue. For what it’s worth, I think the UK Government would enter a currency union with an independent Scotland, if offered the right deal in exchange. But the reality is that when the three people who could be chancellor swear blind that they won’t do it, the “it’ll be alright on the night” message is not credible. I’d suggest he establishes the perfectly plausible and stable option of Scotland having its own currency and voluntarily pegging it to the pound, much like Ireland did with the punt. He should have done so long ago.

Secondly, he should exploit Darling’s weakest point far more effectively than he did last week – namely the weakness of the three pro-UK parties’ proposals for further devolution to Holyrood. The proposals of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are pale, and the Labour proposal is anaemic. Despite that weakness, the proposals do seem to have given the No campaign a slight boost, so Salmond needs to get back to his best turf – telling people that the only way to get the powers they want is to vote Yes.

• Andy Maciver is director of Message Matters strategic communications partners