Sunday 13 September 2015

Darker Together

Today's Sunday Herald carries a series of interviews around the first anniversary of the referendum.
This is a longer, darker version of my interview with LibDem leader Willie Rennie.
I like it when politicians are honest for a change, and Rennie was brutally honest in his recollections of the Better Together campaign. It also shows the extraordinary emotional rollercoaster experienced by people in both sides in that period.

Tom Gordon

LISTENING to Willie Rennie recall the Better Together campaign is like eavesdropping on a therapy session as he wrestles with a half-buried trauma. The misery simply pours out of him. The No side was “shambolic in its development”, groans the Scottish LibDem leader, its output “dark”, its operations “secretive”, people’s confidence was “crushed” by a lack of information.

Yes, they won in the end, but how they won “didn’t make us feel very good about it”.
And as for the aftermath, David Cameron was “despicable,” he spits. “He did more damage in the general election campaign to the Union than the SNP had done for years.”

So not a barrel of laughs, then. Indeed, while the Yes side now boasts thousands of upbeat losers, Rennie seems the embodiment of that other Scottish tribe, the joyless Unionist victor.
Perhaps he should have anticipated a rough ride when Better Together’s launch went awry.
Although he grinned dutifully for the cameras that day, Rennie reveals he couldn’t properly focus because the late Charles Kennedy had failed to show up.
“We suspect it was another one of his episodes. That’s what my mind was flooded with.”

After that, it was mostly downhill all the way for the Labour-Libdem-Tory alliance.
Because the only thing the parties shared was a dislike of independence, the campaign became overwhelmingly negative by default, Rennie explains.
“It was a clash of three different political parties. We all had very different visions for the union, so inevitably the common element was what we were against, which was independence. So to get a consensus, you were focusing on the negative. You couldn’t do a positive vision.”
Rennie: "I was in a very dark place."

Then there were the bad habits of those at the top of the organisation and the Labour party.
“Labour had a dark campaigning style. It was very secretive. Everything would be last minute. You would never be told much about what was going on until it happened. We all suffered. The Tories and ourselves suffered more, but some in Labour were out the loop as well.”

You mean an inner circle did everything? “Yes. It was Blair [McDougall, campaign director] and Rob [Shorthouse, communications director]. People like that were making decisions and had this addiction to secrecy that meant we found it difficult to get answers. It was a fear of the other side finding out what we were planning.

“Because the bulk of people swinging towards independence were in the Labour camp, we knew the campaign had to be Labour-facing. What we didn’t expect was that secret element. It was quite shambolic in its development. Internal comms was poor. You just weren’t told about plans. Things were kept back. The board were frustrated at times as well.”

The Tories were also trouble, Rennie says, and in the early days had to be talked out of trying to dictate the referendum process from Westminster, instead of devolving control to Holyrood. “We had to try and control the Conservatives as much as we could. They had a very gung-ho approach to things, very aggressive, very direct. We in government had to pull them back quite a bit and say, ‘Look, just take it easy.’ Mike Moore [former Scottish Secretary] was a master.”

What about George Osborne coming to Edinburgh and saying Thou shalt not have the pound? “His style of delivery, yes, that was poor,” he says. Putting up George Galloway to defend the union in a debate for schoolchildren at Glasgow’s Hydro was another tin-eared error, he adds. I don’t think he really connected with that many people. He was just a monster maverick. You want to give people confidence about the United Kingdom, you don’t want mavericks.”

The “top-down, politically led” nature of Better Together meant it missed a huge opportunity to foster a community-led campaign of the kind Yes Scotland encouraged, says Rennie.
“We were talking a different language. We were making a case - they had a cause. That changed the whole nature of it. And when they [Yes] started occupying the squares and towns and it had that East European feel, it made us gulp. You could feel it moving.”

His lowest ebb came on September 7, when a Sunday Times YouGov poll put Yes side ahead for the first time, on 51 per cent - a month earlier No had been 22 points in front.
Rennie, Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Labour’s Johann Lamont had a conference call that afternoon. The two women were relatively optimistic, but Rennie saw disaster at hand.

“Ruth was very firm. She said we’ll win 55-45 and she was right. But I don’t think it was 55-45 at that stage. I was in a very dark place. My feeling was that things had moved away from us, and we’d been behind for not just one poll, but for 10 days.

“You could feel in every street that the people moving towards Yes. To generalise, it was educated middle-class, sensible opinion-leaders in communities…. and everybody in the street was looking to them. That worried me greatly. I was very pessimistic, very dark, and they [Davidson and Lamont] were worried about me at that stage, because I was so dark about it.”

Worried that you were cracking up? “They might have thought that,” he says wryly. “They did phone and text later in the way and say, ‘Are you ok?’ because I was so worried about it.”

He felt things turn around when big businesses such as RBS issued “very stark” warnings about the financial consequences of independence. Better Together benefited from solid logistics as well, targeting its messages at key voters. “The emotional side was poor, but the mechanical bit was there,” he says with faint praise.

Jim Murphy’s road trips also lifted Unionist morale, he says, as did the Yes camp’s mistakes.
“They certainly fell down on the currency,” he says. “The lack of economic plans was pretty firmly a mistake. People were worried on the door about currency. They also fell down on the slightly overbearing, aggressive nature of the campaign. That created an atmosphere.”

He thinks another referendum “could well happen”, but also believes people aren’t in any hurry to return to the “conflict between neighbours, friends and relatives” of last year.
“People would like to move on from that, even Yes people,” he says. “My feeling is that they [the SNP] will wait till people are begging for it” before they try another referendum.

If there is another referendum, what what you do differently? "Make sure it was led by non-political, non-partisan people. More of an inclusive arrangement. There would be a common purpose .. an organic campaign. More colourful, more joyful, more positive about the benefits of the United Kingdom.”

It wasn’t all hell on a stick. There were sides to Better Together he looks back on fondly.
He got on well with Davidson and Lamont, admired campaign chair Alistair Darling and Labour’s Douglas Alexander, and appreciated Gordon Brown’s rousing late interventions.

But he is blistering about the other big name in the Unionist corner, David Cameron.
The way the Prime Minister used the result to advance English Votes for English Laws, and then exploited English-Scottish division in the general election, was appalling, he says.

Like Brown, he thinks Cameron’s stoking of English nationalism has imperilled the Union.
“I thought Cameron was despicable. The way that, within a matter of months of having helped us save the United Kingdom, he was prepared to put his party before his country.
“From the morning after [the referendum] all the way through the general election campaign. Within minutes he was out there making the case for the Conservatives, putting the United Kingdom in jeopardy doing so.

“The Alex Salmond pickpocket [election ad] was despicable, just despicable. For somebody who calls himself first and foremost a Unionist, you don’t behave like that. I thought he did more damage in that general election campaign to the Union than the SNP had done for years before that. He’s certainly a threat [to the union]. He needs to wake up and realise that sometimes you just need to put your country first and not your party. I was furious during the campaign the way they were behaving, just furious.”

So if there was another referendum would you throw yourself into it the fray again or pass? Surprisingly perhaps, given the trail of tears he tramped in 2012-14, he’d jump at the chance. "I’d definitely do it. But we need to get better next time. More open, more trusting, more positive about the country, and present a bright vision for where we want to be. To be fair, that’s what the SNP managed to sell quite effectively. It was all hogwash. But they sold it quite well, and that’s to their credit. I just wish we could do a bit of that ourselves.”


  1. Some excellent comments fork Mr Rennie, especially on Cameron, but the overall effect is of Mr Toad writing everyone else out of the taking of Toad Hall.

  2. Interesting to hear the two sides of 2014, for some it was the "Summer of Love". Their dream seemed so close, they could hardly fail to grasp it.
    And for the other side it was a dark,anxious time, akin to a near relative in hospital.