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Better Together? Or Is Change As Good As a Rest?

Robin Copland

As 2014 heads for September, Scotland thinks of itself as at the centre of a political maelstrom.  In truth, some Europeans are following the independence debate with interest, but the rest of the world could not, it seems, care a jot.  Never mind; for those of us who live in Scotland – an important distinction as only those resident in Scotland in September will have a vote – it is providing politicians with a chance to strut their stuff and to ally themselves with people and parties who are normally their sworn enemies.  Thus, we have the former prime minister, Gordon Brown speaking out on behalf of the “Better Together” campaign – a campaign for which his arch-enemy the current prime minister, David Cameron, has also spoken.

On the one hand, those in favour of independence have their campaign coordinated by the Scottish National Party (SNP).  They are disciplined and their arguments are well-rehearsed; they have had plenty of practice – they have been arguing their case for over fifty years.  For the most part, their message has fallen on deaf ears but during the last twenty years their popularity has grown to the extent that they ousted the incumbent labour party from power in 2007, forming a minority government and followed that up with a majority victory in 2011.  This victory set the scene for the 2014 independence referendum.

On the other hand, the three major UK parties, the conservatives, the liberal democrats and the labour parties, have formed an uneasy alliance, called “Better Together”, in order to fight against independence.  They are normally sworn enemies (though the liberal democrats and conservatives did form an alliance after the 2010 UK general election), so it has been a difficult partnership; they find themselves on the defensive, protecting the status quo, where the single-voiced SNP are on the offensive, proposing change.  Although polls have consistently demonstrated that the majority of Scots prefer being part of the union, they are also showing that the gap is narrowing, so much so that there is now a real prospect that Scotland could very well vote for independence – an unthinkable prospect even three years ago.

There are a number of negotiating parallels that can be drawn and lessons that can be learned.

  • The SNP has called for pre-negotiations to begin prior to the referendum.  In reality, there is no need for these as there is a two-year window between the referendum and implementation, but the fact that the “Better Together” people are refusing any pre-negotiations (understandably) can be defined as “negative” by those in favour of independence.
  • The SNP are proposing change, where the “Better Together” campaign is protecting the status quo.  From a negotiating perspective, we always advise those who need to change things to go on the offensive and make proposals – exactly what the SNP is doing.  This has the political effect of making them look pro-active and their opponents defensive.
  • The SNP has made a number of assumptions in their campaign - for example, the rest of the United Kingdom will allow an independent Scotland to remain in the sterling zone and the rest of Europe will welcome a newly-independent Scotland as a member of the European Union.  The party talks confidently about these “plus points” of independence.  Naturally enough, the “Better Together” campaign has taken time to rebut the assumptions but again, in so doing, they appear negative and defensive.

All of this serves to demonstrate that politics and negotiating skills are not natural bedfellows.  What works in a negotiation does not necessarily translate well into the political scene.

So where does Scotwork sit?  Well, needless to say that some of my colleagues are pro-independence and others against.  Many of my English colleagues bemoan the fact that they will not have a vote and will therefore have no say either way.  Some of them want an independent England, for heaven’s sake!  Where will it all end?  

Robin Copland

Robin Copland
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