Miliband swung around and barked out: “What! Do nothing? Don’t you see this is our big opportunity?”
He certainly needed it. Since his narrow victory over his brother for the Labour leadership, the party had led the Tories consistently, but by too narrow a margin to make victory in 2015 a probability. Now he was looking to the Scottish independence referendum and trying to make others see that it offered a chance to really make a difference.
Others had warned him of the dangers: they had pointed out the calculation that it was an issue which directly affected only one in ten of the voting population, and that if the nationalists won in spite of such a heavy Labour investment would do huge damage to Labour as well as to the Tories.
But he had made his mind up. With the Tories all but irrelevant north of the Border, Labour was now the only UK party of government which could represent all mainland parts of the union. This was a responsibility – to act as the political glue of the nation, putting class and economic issues above those of identity and geography.
But it was also an opportunity. Labour could take that responsibility for speaking for the UK as a nation, and use the campaign to reinvigorate its membership, its organisation and its support. Scotland was a Labour heartland, and its voters had been sympathetic to its ideals for generations: what better place could there be to test drive its policies and programmes for the 2015 election?
Miliband called in Alistair Darling, who had already committed to lead for Labour in the all-party Better Campaign. Miliband told him: “Your campaign is going to be about how great the UK is, and ours will be about how Labour made it that way.” Darling was his usual measured self, but agreed that there was much to be gained: “It isn’t enough to pretend that our Blair/Brown years never happened. We can see that from the flatlining in the polls.
“I agree – the time has come to go on the offensive. Everything that is good about Scotland was created by Labour. We must make sure that everyone appreciates that.”
So the long campaign began for Better Together with a series of co-ordinated advertising campaigns which emphasised how both adversity and success had made the UK what was today, and how these had been shared by the whole of the UK. These included pictures of World War 1 soldiers in combat together; and side-by-side photos of the Clydebank and London Blitzes.
An early hit was a 40 crown poster of an aircraft carrier, a Trident submarine and a Type 45 destroyer with the caption “these belong to Scotland.” Further versions with the same slogan included Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster and a strong image of all of the English hospitals which had been used by Scots patients the NHS, arranged to spell out “Better Together.” In the meantime, Labour’s own campaign was tracking the Better Together strategy, reminding voters of the Party’s role in their lives: equal pay and employment law, gay rights, Tax Credits and the Minimum Wage, Scotland’s Parliament and peace in Northern Ireland. A surprise hit was the spoof Frank Capra pastiche “It’s A Wonderful Labour Life.”
These were all wrapped up in the slogan that set the tone for the campaign: “Scotland’s Bigger/Bolder/Brighter in Britain.”
So Labour and Better Together set the tone of campaign. Two other, disconnected, factors had also put a fair wind behind the campaign’s sails.
The first was the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, which ensured that the SNP Scottish Government could not dictate the question to be put in the referendum. As a result, what appeared on the ballot paper had been “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?” This gave the pro-Union camp the advantage of positivity: to stay would be a “Yes”.
The second had been a joint conference of the Scottish Members of Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists, called specifically to address the issue of press fairness in the referendum campaign, and to draw up a Code of Conduct. This addressed the essential philosophical questions of fairness and even-handedness in reporting a binary question.
The choice was whether fairness was treating each side with equal credibility, or whether it was treating each side with equal critical scrutiny. Debate was fierce, and the latter case, led by Andrew Neil, succeeded: if a case was seen to be factually and practically weak, it would be called out as such.
What convinced the assembled journalists was a case study which examined the newly formed “Business for Scotland” with CBI Scotland and the Institute of Fiscal Studies. This showed very clearly the difference between a wafer-thin partisan nationalist front and serious representative and expert organisations. In this way, the nationalist case was frequently taken down in the early days of the campaign, with the result that by referendum day Business for Scotland and the narcissistic so-called “Women for Independence” were seen as little more than figures of fun.
Likewise, on every occasion that the Scottish Government produced their version of the economics of independence, from the ill-fated “Scotland’s Future” White Paper to the SNP’s much-ridiculed position on currency, these were easily and swiftly dispatched.
To the surprise of many, Miliband showed organisational flair and outstanding leadership.
As soon as the disappointing local elections in May 2014 were over, he called an emergency meeting of the PLP. “The battle for Scotland is the battle for the working class movement” he told them, and declared that the Labour Party would move to Scotland for the period up to the referendum.
MPs would be assigned to every Scottish constituency for at least three days every week (In the event, many became so involved that they were rarely in their home constituency, and their CLPs founded lasting links.) This meant that Labour’s 254 MPs were present, 4 and 5 per constituency, making the case for the party, for the union and learning about the issues and how to get messages across. Scotland became a vast Labour Party election boot camp; above all, it was, for many of those MPs and activists, outside their comfort zone. They were forced to listen as well as to tell voters about themselves.
The popular culture campaign was not ignored by the Better Together Yes campaign.
First priority was an anthem. The combination of Scotland in the UK was irresistible in the one-off reformation of the Anglo-Scots Eurythmics in a multi-celebrity version of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.” Its accompanying video of scenes of the prosperity and peace in the UK was co-ordinated with the campaign’s major centrepiece: an evening’s entertainment on the eve of the poll staged by Danny Boyle, based on his opening ceremony for the London Olympics. (The accompanying poster repeated the Scotland in UK theme by showing the 2012 Games alongside the 2014 Commonwealth Games.)
So in the early hours of 19th September 2014, it was clear that the referendum had not just been won by Yes, but that it had been a rout. Better Together had taken over 80% of the vote. Moreover, it was seen as a great triumph for Labour and for Miliband’s leadership in particular, as he had left David Cameron trailing in his wake throughout.
In addition, the SNP had been thrashed and emerged from the campaign broken and divided. Later that day, Alex Salmond resigned as its Leader and as First Minister. His deputy Nicola Sturgeon called for negotiations for a new coalition government of national unity; Labour insisted that the new FM should be Johann Lamont. (Later, the SNP split into a tiny fundamentalist “continuity” party and a larger “social democrat” party, which dropped its policy of independence, and started negotiations with Scottish Labour regarding a merger.)
In those early hours after the referendum result was known, Miliband and Darling sat with a well-earned dram in their campaign headquarters.
They pondered on how easily things could have gone wrong: if Labour had not seized the opportunity, if the campaign had not been a celebration of the UK and its achievements, even if the question had made independence the Yes option. Just one of these mistakes might have been deadly, and even if the case against separation had been won, the consequences for Labour might have been dire. They did not dare to think of the outcome if all of these errors had been made.
Their thoughts inevitably turned to the forthcoming General Election, now only six months away. Labour were now 15 points ahead in the polls, and the Party was in fantastic spirit, up and raring for the fight against a fading Cameron.
Miliband asked the older man his advice regarding possible Cabinet appointments: “Do you think it would look like nepotism if I made Ed Chancellor…?” he mused…