Analysis: Salmond has to combine an appeal to national identity with promise of prosperity

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IT IS not surprising the SNP has welcomed many of the latest figures from ScotCen’s annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey, released today.

IT IS not surprising the SNP has welcomed many of the latest figures from ScotCen’s annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey, released today.

Scots are more likely to think independence would bring about positive benefits, support for leaving the Union has increased and devolution max no longer seems to be the single most popular constitutional option.

All in all, the public seems to have swung significantly in Alex Salmond’s direction.

However, the independence bandwagon still needs to gain a lot more speed before the SNP can be confident that independence will be backed by a majority in the referendum. The increase in support for leaving the Union follows a drop in support during the SNP’s first four years in power.

The latest increase thus represents little more than a return to the status quo that persisted for much of the first eight years of devolution, prior to 2007.

Moreover, independence still looks like far less of a popular cause than devolution did back at the time of the 1997 referendum. Then, nearly two-thirds thought devolution would result in a better economy and a better health service. Only half as many, about a third, believe independence would deliver similar benefits.

If they are to win the referendum, the SNP will need to convince far more Scots of the economic benefits of independence in particular. Emotional appeals to national identity and national pride alone will not be enough. After all, even among the three in ten who declare that they feel Scottish and not British”, only just over half back independence.

In truth, many Scots – almost half – are still worried about independence and thus are still resistant to the idea. Only three in ten say they actually feel confident about the prospect. And central to this cautious mood are people’s feelings about the economic consequences.

While many – no fewer than two- thirds – accept that independence would bring about a greater sense of national pride, holding such a view does not necessarily instil confidence in the prospect.

Only among those who are positively convinced that independence would deliver a stronger economy is an air of confidence – and thus support for independence – clearly the majority mood.

Yet, conversely, if the SNP could win the economic argument, victory could well be theirs. As many as two-thirds of Scots say they would be in favour of independence if they thought it would mean people would on average be £500 a year better off. Younger Scots – those under 40 – seem to be particularly inclined to swing in favour of independence if they thought that it would bring about an economic benefit.

Irrespective of whether it takes place as early as 2014 or as late as 2016, it is of course likely that the independence referendum will take place against the backdrop of continuing economic austerity.

Unionists might well feel that this will make it difficult for the SNP to persuade voters to forget their economic concerns – especially as memories of the economic and financial difficulties of Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and Greece will still be fresh in many voters’ minds.

Yet it should be remembered that the economic uncertainty of the 1970s did not stop the SNP from emerging during that decade into political prominence for the first time ever. With their cry of “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, they combined an appeal to national identity with the prospect of financial riches tomorrow.

The crucial question now is whether they can succeed in repeating that trick.

John Curtice is research consultant and Rachel Ormston is a research director of ScotCen, the Scottish Centre for Social Research.