ANALYSIS: Who on earth can save the Union?

Posted On: 
14th March 2017

Nicola Sturgeon's announcement yesterday that she wants to hold a second independence referendum by Spring 2019 undoubtedly caught Downing Street on the hop.

Nicola Sturgeon chairs a meeting of her Cabinet this morning.
Credit: 
PA Images

Demonstrating what a canny political operator she is, the SNP leader called a press conference at short notice to coincide with the passage of the Article 50 bill at Westminster.

What should have been a good day for Theresa May, when Parliament gave her the power to begin the Brexit process, was immediately blown off course.

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One look at this morning's newspaper front pages showed who had won the first skirmish in what promises to be an ill-tempered and very, very long #indyref2 battle. Sturgeon's face stared out from virtually every one, the Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen.

But while an early victory in the PR battle is handy, Scotland's First Minister has a far bigger advantage over her counterpart in Number 10 - one that will quickly become obvious once the referendum campaign proper begins. While Sturgeon is the obvious figurehead of the pro-independence movement, who will lead the pro-UK campaign?

May herself, like David Cameron in 2014, is obviously a non-starter - too Tory and too English.

There is little prospect of the Labour party - for so long the dominant political force in Scotland - doing much heavy lifting either. Alistair Darling, who led Better Together in 2014 and was the public face of the anti-independence movement, would rather live next door to Gordon Brown again than re-live that experience.

And anyone expecting Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to ride to the rescue should think again.

The Labour leader, unlike many of his MP colleagues, ignored all calls to head north to help out the No campaign in 2014. "He felt it was first and foremost a matter for the Scottish people," one of his aides told me. "If there is a second referendum, as leader he will, of course, be campaigning vigorously."

JK Rowling, who gave £1 million to Better Together last time round, summed up the thoughts of many in her reaction to that news.

 

 

McDonnell was just as relaxed about the future of the UK as his political soul mate. Asked to describe his contribution to the pro-Union movement in 2014, a source said: "I don't think he campaigned directly, although he took part in a few discussions and meetings."

Gordon Brown? His 'dramatic intervention' schtick has long since passed its sell-by date, while there are no other members of Scottish Labour's golden generation willing or able to step up to the plate.

Last year, a senior government source told me the ideal figure to lead the campaign would be "not in politics, well-known and able to handle themselves on TV, radio and in a debate". Answers on a postcard, please.

One intriguing suggestion is that Douglas Alexander - who sort of fits the above description - could be enlisted. But is someone who lost a 16,000 majority to the SNP at the last election and now works for Bono really the man to prevent the break-up of the UK? As we say in Scotland: "Ah hae ma doots."

Which leaves Ruth Davidson. A Tory, but not your archetypal variety. A lesbian, kick-boxing fan from a working class background, she has presided over a dramatic upturn in her party's fortunes north of the Border. But a Tory nonetheless. And so soon after the taking a major role in the Remain campaign last year, does she really fancy being the lead woman in the battle to save the country? It is surely doubtful.

And all the while, Nicola Sturgeon heads up a (broadly) united, enthusiastic and determined Scottish independence campaign. She has already won the first battle, could that be enough to win the war?