OUR opinion poll today is a landmark moment in the referendum campaign to decide Scotland’s future. Not only does it record the biggest Yes vote from an independently-commissioned poll in this campaign, it also puts independence within the grasp of those fighting for it.
If, between now and polling day in September, the Yes camp gains as much support as it has gained in the past four months, then it will have won a victory that will echo around the world and be written indelibly into the history books. Perhaps for the first time in the two years since Alex Salmond announced his intention to test Scottish opinion on his party’s touchstone policy, independence looks like a practical possibility rather than a product of Nationalist wishful thinking.
The figures are a vindication of a Yes campaign that has come in for severe criticism in recent months for its failure to provide convincing answers on many of the practicalities that would be involved in Scotland becoming a state. These areas of disputation include such fundamentals as: the terms of membership of Nato and the European Union; which currency an independent Scotland would use; and who would oversee Scottish monetary policy. But what this poll makes clear – and as the Reform Scotland think-tank suggested last week – these arguments between political anoraks do not exercise the voters. In a recession that has affected pretty much every family in Scotland, what matters to people is their household finances. Our poll shows that the increase in support for independence has been accompanied by an increase in those who believe breaking away from the UK will be good for the Scottish economy.
It is a vindication, too, for the strategy described in detail in this newspaper today by Stephen Noon, one of the key figures behind the scenes in Yes headquarters. Noon describes how Yes is playing the long game, gradually eroding the barriers in target voters’ minds, first winning the “could we be independent?” argument and then working on the “should we be independent?” question, coaxing them along the road towards the point where they are ultimately prepared to give their assent to independence. Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland, has had many detractors – not least within the ranks of his own campaign – but our poll suggests his strategy is working.
The importance of the economy in this referendum raises a key question. This campaign will not play out against a static economic background. The evidence is growing that Scotland – and Britain as a whole – is emerging from the slough of economic despond that has marked so many lives in recent years. As that recovery takes hold as expected over the summer, what difference will that make in the referendum campaign? Will it make Scots more comfortable about taking a risk in a new Scottish state, or will it make them think the UK is finally putting us back on the path to prosperity? That is just one of the many imponderables for the coming months.
Other factors will also play a part. Our poll suggests that voters whose support for a No was contingent on the pro-UK parties getting their act together on a far more powerful Holyrood within the UK, are losing patience. In the absence of any organised movement towards a Unionist consensus on more fiscal and welfare powers – or even a narrative that indicates how such a consensus is going to be achieved – some of these voters have given up and switched to Don’t Know or Yes. This is just one of the factors that have led to Better Together squandering much of its lead. Others include a No campaign characterised by complacency, dreary negativity, and a failure to press home a positive argument for the social solidarity and cultural diversity of the United Kingdom. For Blair McDougall, head of Better Together, and the leaders of all the pro-UK parties, today’s poll is a definite wake-up call.
One of the advantages the No camp is frittering away is its lead among women. When ICM conducted its last poll for Scotland on Sunday last September, only 28 per cent of women were backing Yes. That figure is now 33 per cent – a serious shift. This is something the SNP has been working hard to achieve. The headline promise at the time of the launch of the white paper – that an SNP government in an independent Scotland would bring about a revolution in childcare – may well have had its desired effect. With more women than men currently remaining in the Don’t Know column, this bodes well for the Yes camp as we head to Scotland’s date with destiny.
Of course, this poll is just a snapshot of opinion. There are still eight months until Scotland casts its vote. And the No camp is still marginally in the lead. But the direction of travel is clearly in the Yes camp’s favour. Whether theirs is ultimately a winning formula remains to be seen, but right now it is certainly winning votes. And it only needs a swing of four percentage points to move into the lead. This is an extraordinary moment for nationalists, placing them firmly in the anteroom of history. Our poll today changes the nature of the campaign. Alex Salmond has been saying for some time that the real contest has yet to begin. Well, it has begun now.
Government must act to protect privacy
IN 1992 this newspaper revealed the existence of a routine police practice called “metering”. This involved a senior detective phoning up British Telecom and requesting details of one of their customer’s phone records. These phone records detailed the numbers that person was calling, when the call took place, and the call’s duration. British Telecom handed this over under “a private agreement” it had struck between itself and the police.
Not only did we reveal this practice, we revealed how little political or judicial oversight there was of it. Eventually the Secretary of State for Scotland at the time, Ian Lang, issued new guidelines on metering for Scotland’s police forces, and a reporting system was introduced to keep tabs on it. The story came to light after this newspaper obtained copies of metering surveillance documents which had been stolen during a break-in at the Lothian and Borders police force headquarters in Edinburgh, in a saga that came to be known as Fettesgate.
Fast forward 22 years and change the word “metering” to “metadata” and you have one of the world’s biggest news stories. Edward Snowden, a former US intelligence officer, has in recent months revealed the extraordinary scale of surveillance of the public’s phone, text, e-mail and social network communications, carried out by the USA’s National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ. The issues now are the same issues that pertained in 1992. Much of this surveillance is of metadata, which unlike actual listening into phone conversations and reading e-mails does not require ministerial permission. As a result, political oversight of this practice is scant.
The Scottish Government, responding last week to Scotland on Sunday’s inquiries about Police Scotland, appear to accept the current democratic oversight may be insufficient, suggesting that the scope may need to be reviewed in the event of Scotland becoming independent.
This is not good enough. If the legislation needs to be reviewed then it should be done now, because the issues of accountability, oversight and privacy apply regardless of Scotland’s constitutional future. Privacy is one of the biggest issues of the age. Digital communications and social networking have opened up the world in a way that would have been hard to imagine a generation ago. But it is becoming all too clear this has been achieved at a price. One of biggest challenges facing our politicians is to balance the needs of the police and security services with the law-abiding individual’s right to a private life. Particularly worrying is the cosy relationship that has grown up between the authorities and some large communications companies, who are already under fire for being cavalier with their customers’ privacy.
Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, has been almost completely silent on this, one of the issues of the age. His silence must end, and he must accept his job is not only facilitating the police in their fight against crime; it also involves protecting ordinary Scots from undue and unwelcome scrutiny of their private lives by the authorities. MacAskill needs to demonstrate he has this balance right.