AS WE enjoy the bank holiday weekend and try to kick off some of the cares of the world in a few short days of barbecues, family get-togethers and far too much chocolate, spare a thought for the leaders of the Better Together campaign.
Our exclusive ICM opinion poll today is, for them, the political equivalent of a traffic jam on the M8, a 100-yard queue at the garden centre, or a sudden downpour on an Easter Sunday egg hunt. These numbers show the SNP and its allies in the Yes Scotland coalition poised on the verge of making history. Among respondents expressing a view, a swing of only two percentage points is all that stands between the Nationalists and the independence dream they have nursed since their party was founded 80 years ago. That small swing would irrevocably change the political make-up of the islands on which we live, with the United Kingdom as we know it consigned to history. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader who brought his party and his country to this point, is truly in the anteroom of history.
In his analysis on our news pages today, Professor John Curtice explains in cogent detail why the Yes campaign has no reason to be complacent. Despite the clear movement in its favour over the past two months, its vote remains strangely soft. Yes voters are, for example, far more likely than No voters to say they may yet change their minds. But the worries for Better Together are far more serious. It needs a much more coherent and deft response than it has shown to date.
Our poll today introduces a new factor in the referendum debate, and one that demands sensitive handling. ICM asked people to state the country of their birth, and from this we learn that there is already a majority for independence among voters who were born in Scotland, when you exclude the undecided. Among Scottish residents who were born in England, however, there is a strong pro-UK and anti-independence feeling. When it comes to casting votes on polling day, of course, it will not matter what country someone was born in. As long as they are resident in Scotland and meet all the relevant criteria, they are entitled to vote on the future governance of the country they have made their home. This is exactly how it should be. Our nation’s definition of “a Scot”, for the purposes of this referendum, is someone who lives here. We do not – and should not – make distinctions about someone’s race, creed or national origin. Scotland has always been, in William McIlvanney’s famous phrase, a mongrel nation, and proud of it. The English-born voter in this referendum, however long he or she has lived here, has exactly the same rights as the Scottish-born voter, who may be able to trace his or her Caledonian ancestry back centuries. We are, all of us, citizens of Scotland. It is a point worth dwelling on for a moment, and cementing its principle into the debate in these last few months, if only to ensure there is no Scottish echo of comments made in the wake of the Quebec referendum of 1995, when a nationalist leader blamed their narrow defeat on “the ethnic vote”, meaning immigrants who did not want to see the break-up of Canada. That was unacceptable in Quebec then and it would be unacceptable in Scotland now.
If current trends continue, it will not be long before the opinion polls start to show a Yes lead. Some pro-independence strategists are worried the big breakthrough will come too early. They see a danger in being ahead as Scotland heads into the summer, with time to dwell on the full implications as they sink home. Much better, they calculate, to build gradually and sweep into the lead at the final moment, with less time for people to pause and reconsider. It is, of course, out of the strategists’ hands, and up to the voters. They will decide the momentum of this campaign, as well as its outcome.
Easter truce’s mixed messages
THE Easter truce called by the Ukrainian authorities yesterday in the standoff with pro-Russian militia occupying government buildings gives a welcome opportunity for a cooling-off period. Tension remains high in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine, and the uneasy peace is very fragile indeed. The deal struck in Geneva last week between Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine looked good on paper – it was particularly heartening that Russia signed up to an agreement that called on all pro-Moscow groups to vacate the Ukrainian government buildings they were occupying. But ensuring that deal is enforced on the ground is looking like a much harder task. Some question if president Vladimir Putin has any intention of taking his foot off Ukraine’s throat.
There is a deep scepticism among some in the West about Putin’s sincerity in signing the Geneva deal, a scepticism fuelled by the experience of recent years that have shown him casually dismissive of US and EU interests and concerns. Faced with his implacability, the West seems hesitant and weak, torn between confronting or appeasing Putin. The reliance of many EU countries on Russian gas (not to mention the City of London’s lucrative engagement with wealthy Russian tycoons) is never far from the minds of those making a judgment on how to respond.
The hope in the West is that the Easter truce could allow Russian officials to bring pressure to bear on the militants to withdraw. There are indeed those in Moscow who fear the damage that could be caused by the West carrying through with its threat to impose greater financial sanctions on Russian interests. These are already impacting on the oligarchs who support Putin, but a wider exclusion from key US financial markets could be very costly to an already precarious Russian economy. From a purely economic point of view, a new Cold War would be to both sides’ disadvantage.
But will economics trump the lure of greater geopolitical power? Putin yesterday announced he would be awarding medals to the forces who occupied the Crimea before its referendum decision to ally itself with Moscow. Russian armed forces in the region remain massed on borders and on high alert. Mixed messages, indeed.