Polling problem

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With the SNP conference in full swing there will be one thing on everyone’s mind of course – the independence referendum – and can the Yes campaign catch its rival?

There is general agreement that the No campaign has a healthy lead over its Yes counterparts, from a believable 10 per cent to a rather unbelievable 30 per cent. For many commentators it is all over bar the shouting, despite there being just under a year to go.

Actual referendums on independence are thin on the ground. The closest to the Scottish situation is of course the Quebec referendum of 1995 and that produced a narrow win for the No campaign – No: 50.58 per cent; Yes: 49.42 per cent.

However, it is the results from surveys leading up to the Quebec poll that raise questions as to what the final referendum result will be.

In Quebec the No campaign was enjoying consistently healthy leads in the months leading up to the ballot. Six weeks before the 14 September vote, support for independence – or sovereignty – was only 35.7 per cent. Two weeks later, the Yes campaign began to eat into the lead and had reduced it to ten points.

With three weeks to go, some pollsters began recording leads for Yes, and with 21 days to go until the actual ballot almost every pollster gave the Yes campaign a narrow lead.

It scared the Canadian government, which mounted a sustained and quite nasty campaign in the final weeks, eventually winning by 1.16 per cent. More recently, a referendum held in Ireland highlighted the dangers of relying on polls when the Irish government’s option for abolition the Senate was defeated by 51.7 per cent to 48.3 per cent. Only six days before the actual ballot, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found abolition was “backed by 62 per cent, with only 38 per cent in favour of retaining”.

In a stark warning to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Diarmaid Fleming of BBC News in Dublin reported that: “Irish PM, Mr Kenny’s, refusal to take part in a television debate appears to have been a huge miscalculation.”

There is all still to play for in the independence referendum and those who believe the result is a foregone conclusion should look to history and think again.

Alex Orr

Leamington Terrace

Edinburgh