Voters bide time on Scottish independence

It's difficult to know what the man or woman in the street is thinking with so many ''indy-betweeners refusing to commit themselves. Picture: PA

It's difficult to know what the man or woman in the street is thinking with so many ''indy-betweeners refusing to commit themselves. Picture: PA

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Whether frustrated, confused or just apathetic, those who have yet to decide what to do on referendum day could have the casting vote, writes Eddie Barnes

JEANNETE Piper will probably not like the tag applied to her, but she is what might be described as a New Nat. The 74-year-old from East Kilbride spent most of her life as a Labour supporter. But, at the historic Holyrood election in 2011, along with thousands of other voters, she declares: “I gave the SNP a loan of my vote.”

The outcome, in her case, was that the solid, Labour-voting, middle-class Lanarkshire town ditched the red rosette for a shiny new yellow and black version. She has her doubts about that decision now, she says. But then she also isn’t sure what to make of the referendum either.

Last week, spotting that a debate was to take place on STV between Labour’s Anas Sarwar and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, she decided to tune in, hoping for answers. She was disappointed. “I thought the debate was awful, from both of the people. I was surprised at Nicola Sturgeon. I thought she had some ability. I thought it was going to give some answers, but it just descended into a stairheid rammy.” A year to go before polling day, she adds: “I still haven’t made up my mind because I am not getting the answers that are required. We don’t want scare tactics. I just want some honesty from both of them.”

On Wednesday of this week, she and the rest of the population can expect another barrage of campaign messages from the two sides as they mark the symbolic moment when it will be One Year to Go until Scotland’s date with destiny. But come Thursday, with the fanfare over, it is likely that she and most other people will still be none the wiser.

Scottish opinion on the referendum is currently like a well-made chocolate fondant. On the outside, opinion has been baked hard; committed Yes and No voters have decided what they are going to do and nothing is going to change their mind. They number Yes voters like the Perthshire businessman I spoke to earlier this month as part of this series on Scotland’s voters who argued Scotland needs to take the plunge and go for self-determination, as well as the group of four 18-year-old students in Glasgow I met last week who – when asked whether they’d vote Yes if another 20 billion litres of oil were found off the Aberdeen coast – all insisted No, it would make no difference whatsoever. For these people, and many others, no further information is required.

Break through this crust, however, and from the middle, the liquid of half-formed opinion oozes all over the place. Common sense might suggest that, with the referendum now just a year away, indecision will soon be starting to harden up. In fact, according to one poll two weeks ago, the opposite is happening. In February, TNS found that 15 per cent of people were in the “don’t know” category. This month, in the same polling company’s new survey, that figure had risen to 28 per cent. Alastair Gordon of TNS says: “Both sides are campaigning and the issues that they are raising are leading people to question what they think. So people are moving into that don’t know category.” One pollster reckons that as many as 44 per cent of people in Scotland are shoulder-shruggers – made up of those who may not bother to vote, who will vote but don’t know for what, or who will vote but may still change their minds. Our ICM poll today finds that, among Yes and No voters, 21 per cent admit they may still change their mind.

For the two campaigns in Glasgow cranking up their street operations this week, while it is important to ensure they get their hardcore supporters signed, sealed and ferried to the polling booths, they also know that the final result next September still hangs on what happens to the ditherers, the don’t knows and the don’t cares. For the Yes camp, this is particularly the case – for the polls suggest that only by persuading many of the switherers to swing their way can they sneak an unexpected victory.

Is there anything that might tempt these voters to do so?

Of course, Scotland’s indy-betweeners have a well-known mascot. Andy Murray is now used to being asked for his own take on the big question – and has consistently batted the questions back with characteristic aplomb. “I don’t think you should judge the thing on emotion but on what is best economically for Scotland,” he ventured earlier this year. After winning Wimbledon in July, he added: “When the time is right, I will probably say something about it. I’m going to get asked about it all the time. I will think about it, speak to some people and try to see what is best for the country.” He gives the impression he’d really rather not have to bother – telling David Cameron, Nick Clegg and SNP MP Angus Robertson at a private drinks reception earlier this summer that it was a shame they couldn’t get on together more often.

He is not alone in his caution. Another undecided is Sir Tom Hunter, one of the country’s leading entrepreneurs. For him, the choice, is over which option best helps the education system and, in turn, makes businesses grow and prosper. “My question is which government is going to catalyse growth most? I guess for the man in the street it’s straightforward – am I better or worse off? The fear of the unknown is formidable so for me it’s up to the SNP to deliver the burden of proof that the answer is better – no small challenge.” If it’s a business case he’s looking for, other undecideds are torn culturally. As the undecided comedian Sanjeev Kohli declared recently: “When I hear Belle and Sebastian or Chic Murray or Ivor Cutler, I’m proud to be a Scot,” he said. “When I hear Portishead or Jarvis Cocker of the work of Chris Morris I’m proud to be Brit.”

And then there are as many as a million other Scottish residents who, the pollsters say, are not yet sure whether they will be voting at all. Ipsos Mori estimates that the stay-at-home brigade may account for around 25 per cent of the electorate, disproportionately made up of Generation Y-ers born towards the end of the last century. John Harvie, 17, currently at Castlemilk High School in Glasgow declares: “None of my family vote. I don’t really see a reason to vote.” He opposes independence, he says. So why not go out and show it? “I don’t see it making much difference,” he declares, to nods from his friends.

Yet even if 25 per cent of people stay at home next year, it represents a bigger, and therefore different, electorate than normal. With uncertainty prevalent among many, nobody can quite be sure yet – assuming they make it out of the house – how they’ll finally vote. This adds a tantalising element of doubt to proceedings. In Yes Scotland headquarters in Glasgow, and despite a succession of unpromising polls, campaigners are basing much of their hope on the undecideds going their way; hope based, they say, on their own private research. The consistently unpromising polls need to “catch up” with the people, says Blair Jenkins, the campaign’s chief executive. He says his own data reveals that twice as many undecideds are inclining towards a Yes than tipping to a No, containing disproportionate numbers of women and youngsters.

David Rankin, 21, a student at Langside College in the south-side of Glasgow, is a prime candidate. “I am leaning towards a Yes. I don’t see the point of Britain. I don’t have anything against it but I just don’t see the need to be in the Union,” he said outside the college gate last week. But… and you can hear the But coming… “But I don’t know how it will be in the country if we go independent.” He complains that the pro-independence side hasn’t been able so far to come up with definitive answers – like on EU membership. “I just hope that by next year I know the pros and cons of both sides. I still can see myself voting Yes, but I’ll just have to see.” Jenkins argues that, over the next year, that kind of hesitation will lessen as people begin to tune into the Byzantine depths of the campaign. “There is quite a lot of fluidity out there. But the only movement is to a Yes”. He sticks by his prediction, made at the start of this year, that by the New Year, the gap will start to narrow.

There is no disputing, on the other side of the fence, that many people have yet to make up their mind. But, insists Alistair Darling, Better Together’s chief, there’s no evidence at all that they’re moving towards independence. And our poll today suggests that neither side has an advantage among the undecideds – one in five say they are “likely” to back Yes and No, with the rest in the middle. Certainly, says Darling, there has been scant evidence so far of any movement. “If you look at the people supporting independence, it hasn’t shifted much at all over the duration of the campaign,” he says. The problem for the pro-independence side may be that, as polling guru Nate Silver declared last month when in Edinburgh, people tend to become more likely to stick with what they know as a campaign progresses, as opposed to an uncertain “change” option. “It’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time. People tend not to default to changing the status quo.” This was why he declared that the pro-independence side has “virtually no chance”.

But the Yes side remain doggedly optimistic, also pointing to the chunk of people who currently say they won’t be voting. Enthused Yes voters are more likely to head out to vote than complacent No voters, goes the argument. Therefore, they hope, a large chunk of their opposition may fail to register their vote. Certainly, the fear in the No camp is of “differential turnout” – under which Scotland ends up backing independence because Union supporters are too busy watching EastEnders.

And, as our poll suggests today, the decision of undecideds may be affected by the decision of the pro-UK parties before next year’s vote on plans for further devolution. Fifty-one per cent of don’t knows said they would want Holyrood to become primarily responsible for welfare and taxation, compared with just 13 per cent who backed no further change. So a clear package of further devolution might persuade some ditherers to vote No. Equally, the reception given to this autumn’s government white paper on independence might be a factor in either easing their concerns about independence, or reaffirming their doubts.

The indy-betweeners, in short, would like something to cling on to. But given the likelihood that the fog of war will make life all the more confusing over the coming months, it may not be so easy to find it. Many people may choose simply to tune out till later. Jenkins says that one of his friends has told him he plans to block out everything in the campaign for the coming year, and will only study the offerings on the table with two weeks to go. In all likelihood, a year this Wednesday, thousands of people will be doing the same, working out what to think. The future of the country will be in their hands. No wonder they’re giving it some thought. «

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23

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