Margo MacDonald: Why so scared of the N-word?

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I’ve hit on the perfect campaign anthem for the side of the referendum contest that dare not speak its name. The people who want you to say “No” to Scottish independence, the SNP and everything, is led by an attractive, if unconvincing, troika of Alistair Darling, Charlie Kennedy and Annabel Goldie. They’ve come together to say something in response to the Yes campaign . . . but what?

Someone has advised them voters might not go for an honest “No” campaign in answer to the “Yes” campaign for sovereign independence and equality for Scotland.

But if the referendum is to be shaped by such superficiality, here’s a helpful hint to the secret “No” campaigners – reprise the words of The Pioneers’ 1971 reggae classic: “let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no”. My suggestion is free . . . more than likely quite different from the utter tosh they’ve been told by someone who knows nothing of the alchemy of politics beyond the contents of Alistair Campbell’s books. Such an under- estimation of the electorate will cost the “No” side dear.

Voters have enough savvy to work out that in the referendum nationalists will ask them to say “Yes” to Scotland becoming an independent, sovereign country, equal in legal status to any other country with its own legislature, judiciary etc. Or instead say “No” to that, because Unionists think it preferable for Scotland to remain a region of the UK, like Merseyside, plus a parliament with limited powers, inferior rather than equal to Westminster.

But why should the leaders of the campaign that will try to persuade people to say “No” to sovereignty for Holyrood find difficulty in using the straightforward way of doing so. Why not just say “No” if they’re as convinced that the “Yes” side have got it as wrong as they make out whenever they’re interviewed?

Don’t they owe it to the people, whose best interests they believe they protect from the inadequacies and flawed analysis of the “Yes” campaign, to provide the matching unambiguous statement of where they stand in the debate?

It’s no great surprise to voters when they observe politicians wanting to have it all ways, ducking and diving to offend as few of the people as possible to win as many votes as possible But unless my own instincts are all awry, Scots have set the bar higher than at general elections – they’re expecting more than the usual spin, evasion, and partisan economics from people of different parties who, in Scotland’s name, claim to have joined forces to defend the Union, and those who campaign for independence.

But the “No” side has difficulty in admitting up-front to this perfectly reasonable proposition. Nor do they want to be called Unionists in the same way as Nationalists are identified.

Alex Salmond and nationalists who might fairly be described as “gradualists” have come under some friendly fire from nationalists who disagree with the notion that the Scots could vote against being independent and exercise clout with Westminster afterwards. Much more likely, according to this line of reasoning, is that if the Scots get to the hurdle and then stall, Westminster would see the Scots as having wimped out, implement the Calmanised Scotland Act, and then ignore us. The exception to this modus operandi might well be the Scottish MPs who would try to forge closer working relationships with their MSPs.

It’s unlikely that this could ever amount to more than a lobbying function, and just as unlikely that it would cut any more butter than at present, when the element of trying to keep relationships as good as possible plays a part in Westminster’s dealings with Holyrood.

If the Scots step out of the blocks at the last moment, they will be judged to be all mouth, no trousers. Though that might be hard to believe for the “devo-max” and “devo-plus” campaigners, the powers that be in Westminster won’t respect them in the morning.

In 1979, when the Scots narrowly voted in favour of having an Assembly, but were cheated out of it by the infamous 40 per cent rule, people here were embarrassed and, yes, a bit ashamed that we hadn’t done more to convince Westminster of our seriousness. Fortunately, coping with the rough edges of Thatcherism, the Falklands War and being sidetracked by two royal tragicomedies took the edge off our rawness and we were able to regroup around campaigns against unemployment and the decline of industry.

This time, unless we settle the question once and for all into the foreseeable future, re-enthusing and re-organising will be done on the internet. This time round it’s been a novelty to literally watch the campaign grow, but for democracy to be compensated for the loss of political organisations worth the name is another matter.