WITH a little more than two months to go until the referendum on Scottish independence, the Yes campaign has problems.
Despite the nationalist mantra that “the momentum” is with them, a new ICM poll for Scotland on Sunday confirms this is not the case.
A slight drop, over the past month, in support for the break up of the United Kingdom reveals a Yes campaign that’s treading water. If First Minister Alex Salmond is to realise his ambition of leading Scotland out of the UK, then his side of the debate requires a sudden and dramatic uplift in its fortunes.
Faced with the ongoing reality of polls that predict a comfortable victory for Better Together, Yes Scotland campaigners often point to the outcome of the 2011 Holyrood election when Labour started with a comfortable lead and crashed to such a humiliating defeat that the SNP had the parliamentary majority it required to legislate for a referendum.
The temptation to do so is understandable, but that Labour defeat was down to a dreadful campaign. It was also, crucially, not a campaign about constitutional change. Nationalists who assume a similar late rush of support on 18 September are taking a great deal for granted.
Adding to pressure on Yes Scotland are the poll’s findings that an increasing number of Scots believe the promises, made by the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties, of more powers after a No vote. The SNP and Yes Scotland have worked hard to cast doubt on these pledges, dismissing them as nothing more than “jam tomorrow”, but it appears the unionist parties have done a decent job of convincing Scots that they’ll keep their word on this matter.
Should Scotland reject independence, those three parties will have to act quickly in showing they were sincere. There must be swift action to give more muscle to Holyrood.
This may be easier said than done. While the three main unionist parties may agree on the need for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, they have not yet come together on which powers might be involved.
Failure to promptly deliver appreciable new powers, after a No vote, would not be quickly forgotten. We have only to look at the backlash against the Lib Dems after they ditched key pledges as part of their coalition deal with the Tories at Westminster to see how unforgiving voters can be.
If unionist politicians fail to keep these promises in the event of their referendum victory, then we should not be surprised if a second referendum is called before long.
The upcoming Commonwealth Games will give both sides of the referendum campaign the opportunity to pause and reflect. This time will be especially crucial for Yes Scotland because, when the Games close on 3 August, there will be no hiding place until polling day.
Supporters and opponents, alike, agree that it is a mistake to underestimate Salmond, but it is hard to see how even this master campaigner can turn things around in just a few weeks.
Traditionally, those who tell pollsters they don’t know – by nature, uncertain – tend to give their support in the end to the status quo. If Salmond is to win in September, he will have to persuade these cautious voters, in great numbers, to take a leap with him.
The Yes campaign continues to struggle with a lack of focus, with the language of social justice and civic nationalism coming from some colliding messily with the language of identity coming from others.
Post-Commonwealth Games, Alex Salmond will need a clear, compelling message that shifts polls which have stubbornly refused for decades to show majority support for independence.
The suspicion is, however, that if the First Minister had such a story to tell, we’d have heard it by now.
Abuse inquiry findings already undermined
IT IS not that Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss could not lead an inquiry into allegations of historical child abuse, it is that she must not.
Baroness Butler-Sloss is a woman of intelligence and drive, with an admirable track record of public service. The former High Court judge’s inquiry into the Cleveland child abuse scandal led to landmark legislation to protect children, and so it may seem logical that she should head a review of how allegations of abuse linked to public institutions in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were handled.
But if she does so, then the findings of the group will be tainted before they are published. There is no suggestion that she is anything but a woman of the utmost integrity, but her personal qualities do not erase the very real problems created by her appointment by Home Secretary Theresa May.
Last week, Labour MP Simon Danczuk said Baroness Butler-Sloss’s position was undermined by the fact that her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney-General in the 1980s. Legal decisions taken by the government during Sir Michael’s tenure might be examined as part of the inquiry. Given that this is to be an investigation into what we might describe as the establishment, it is wrong that it should be carried out by a member of that establishment.
There are further complications after a man who was abused while a choirboy claimed she wanted to exclude some of his allegations to protect the Church of England during a previous review. Baroness Butler-Sloss is adamant that she has never put an institution before an individual and we must accept her reassurance.
But the public must have faith in the findings of any review into how allegations of abuse were handled. More importantly, victims must have complete confidence in every stage of the process. Controversy at this early stage over the baroness’s appointment makes that impossible.
We cannot allow an inquiry to proceed until we are certain its findings will not only be fair and accurate but that they will not be open to attack. The Home Office remains resolute that Baroness Butler-Sloss is the right person for thisreview. Through no fault of her own, she is not.