One year to go: Scottish vote that will shape Britain’s future

Hands up if you want to end the union. Andrew Milligan/PA

A year away from the Scottish referendum, we have opinion polls almost weekly, as the media tries to discern the rise and fall in the standings of the rival teams. Yet the most striking fact is the stability in public opinion. For the past 20 years, support for independence has been around 30% and all the argument over the past two years appears to have made little difference.

Such fluctuations as the media find are mostly due to the precise wording of the question (although we now have the actual question, which is usually used); random error; and the context in which the question is posed.

As John Curtice has noted, a recent poll showing the Yes side almost level came out of a poll in which respondents had previously been asked their opinion of the Scottish government, which remains remarkably popular. Some recent polls have suggested a decline in Don’t Knows, to the benefit of the No camp, but even this is not consistent.

The past six months have seen a barrage from the No campaign (Better Together), with a series of papers on a range of policy issues and almost daily statements. These range from the serious through the banal and trivial to the misleading and the irrelevant. It scored some points on the question of the currency and the SNP’s proposal to continue to use Sterling after independence.

Indifferent? Support for independence has remained fairly small. Source: Scottish Referendum Study; 1999–2012: Scottish Social Attitudes

The Yes side was forced to retreat, accepting further limitations on independence implied by this, while a section of its own supporters came out in favour of a separate Scottish currency. Claims that Scots would have to pay roaming charges to use their mobile phones in England proved an own goal as that very week the EU had announced the elimination of such charges.

A paper on the cost of borders was a mixed success, as it is not clear what the relevance of the US-Canada or German-Austrian comparisons is; the Canadian references are seriously dated; and it sits ill with the UK Government’s obsession about strengthening the UK border and loosening ties with the European Union.

Advantage ‘No’

The disparity of resources between the two sides has become apparent as the unionists are able to draw on the Whitehall civil service, committed to the union and knowledgeable across the policy field. Scottish government civil servants lack expertise in matters outside their own devolved areas, are fewer in number and less able to take sides on what is, within Scotland, a contentious political matter. The Yes camp has been slow to respond to new issues and it seems that the long-expected independence paper (due some time in autumn) might be short on detail.

The task of the No camp is also inherently easier than that of the Yes side. It merely needs to list problems that might arise from independence, so increasing the perceived risk. The fact that many of these issues arise in any independent state, including the UK, does not affect the potency of the accumulated arguments.

Yes for Scotland (the pro-independence umbrella group) has a harder task in making the positive case. They have been so keen to play down risks as almost to suggest that nothing will really change. They are divided between a centre-right, which dreams of a low-tax competition state, and a centre left that’s ideal is the Nordic social democracies.

That vision thing

The former has long been sustained by neo-liberal think tanks and some individual voices within the business community. The latter has now found its voice in the Jimmy Reid Foundation and its Common Weal project. In recent months, the social democratic tendency has been more vocal and it is possible that linking the independence project to a social democratic agenda could begin to move opinion.

It is true that polls have shown that Scottish voters, like those in England, are less sympathetic to benefit claimants and the unemployed and less keen on redistribution. On the other hand, the vision of a social democratic political economy remains a strong competitor to the neo-liberal alternative. As the Scottish Labour Party struggles to find a message both on the constitutional and on the social and economic agenda, the Scottish left is increasingly a nationalist one, if only with a “small n”.

If the Yes side has been losing most of the arguments, it can take comfort in the fact that this does not seem to have massively swung opinion. So if it can mobilise more effectively in the new political season, and reframe the issue as Conservative England (especially if people think that the Conservatives will win the 2015 general election) versus caring Scotland, then the result may be tighter than polls currently show.