Why tribal inter-party rivalry is blunting the No campaign for Scots independence.
Last weekend, the historic city of Stirling played host to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s annual conference. An event which drew more attention than has been paid to it previously, or to most other Scottish party conferences this year.
Whilst most of this attention came in the form of the somewhat predictable left-wing protesters hurling inaccurate slogans, this was purely a distraction from the important results of the conference. Ruth Davidson used the conference to further cement herself as the Scottish Tories’ leader by unveiling some crowd-pleasing policies: the Prime Minister used the subtext of his speech to reinforce the relevance and importance of the Scottish Conservatives in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence: and all talk of division, revision and revamping seemed to be made a thing of the past. However, all this activity seemed only to provide a soundtrack to the main related subject in the Scottish political dialogue.
It seems that some people objected to former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling MP, chair of the Better Together campaign, even being in attendance, never mind how they felt about him speaking. The objections to Mr Darling speaking at the Scottish Tory Party Conference tended to come from two different demographics.
The first came from the supporters of the Yes Campaign, who suggest that Mr Darling’s presence and participation were an affirmation of their argument that all the pro-Union parties are effectively the same, and therefore render independence a more viable option in the minds of their increasingly hostile target voters. But such an argument holds no weight whatsoever. To suggest that the presence at a party conference of one individual belonging to a rival party is indicative of anything more than an ideological cross-over on one individual issue seems fanciful and worthy of Alex Jones in conspiracy theory terms.
Furthermore, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives are in the process of outlining their respective future visions of a post-referendum Scotland, all of which, if the parties are as shrewd as they ought to be, will offer contrasting depictions of the devolutionary settlement. Accusing your opponents of being all the same when they state their differences so clearly and regularly is a futile position to hold.
The second set of objections to Mr Darling’s presence came from within his own party, some of whom feel a sense of betrayal at one of their own supposedly ‘cosying up’ to their bitter Conservative rivals. These disgruntled Labour Party supporters make two mistakes, and are also unaware of the damage to the Scottish political system which they perpetrate.
Firstly, Mr Darling attended the Tory Conference purely in his capacity as the chair of the ‘all-party and non-party’ Better Together campaign. He has not jumped ship and is as critical of Conservative Party policy as he always has been, particularly in economic terms. This ‘treason paranoia’ which exists is as unrealistic as it is unhelpful to their shared endeavour.
Also, objectors within Mr Darling’s own party fail to see the big picture. If their goal is to ensure a ‘No’ vote in 2014, then Better Together has to live alongside the individual party’s campaigns as well as provide a united front; a front which would only be damaged had Mr Darling not attended the conference. Alistair Darling’s role must be to sit above party politics, so were he to favour or disfavour any of the parties which constitute Better Together, he might well cause a divisive chasm in the campaign. Unity and division are incompatible in this way; one is desirable for the Unionists, whilst the other is potentially lethal to their intentions.
As mentioned above, the recent controversy surrounding Mr Darling’s appearance and performance at the Scottish Conservative Conference is indicative of a deeper illness which has plagued Scottish politics for some time. At the conference there were many interesting policies aired, some fascinating political developments unfolding, and a new element introduced into the spotlight of the constitutional debate (namely the issue of the armed forces): but most of the focus rested on the same, tired, ‘us versus them’ party politics akin to the tribalism endemic to professional sports fans.
It is the opinion of this commentator that Scottish politics will never develop until our people stop thinking of their rival political organisations as two-dimensional pantomime villains who can do nothing right; maybe when we stop hearing arguments which surround ‘…but the Tories!’ or ‘…well, you can’t trust Labour can you?’ as legitimate premises, and party policies are evaluated for their merits, then events like the leader of a cross-party campaign attending the conference of one of the parties involved in that campaign will be treated like the non-story it is. We can but hope.
Alan Grant is a blogger, journalist and radio broadcaster, who specialises in writing on Scottish politics and economics. He tweets as @alangrantuk