THIS week’s Ipsos MORI poll for STV is the first since last year’s referendum to show a majority, 53 per cent, in favour of independence. Excluding the don’t knows it was, almost ironically, 55 per cent to 45.
This doesn’t mean the Scottish Government should rush to re-run a vote to which there was a clear answer less than a year ago. But it would also be a foolish government, north or south, that ignored the feelings of large proportions of the people they serve.
The only thing that increases support for another referendum is the passage of time
What last year’s vote did was establish clear principles and processes that are no longer in doubt. Any member of the Holyrood Parliament can put the case for a referendum to a vote. If passed it would be legitimate and any suggestion that Westminster could legally thwart it, as some argued they could and should last time, is now destroyed by precedent.
Acting purely in the economic, social and political interest of Scotland, it is incumbent on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to deftly balance a number of competing factors at once in thinking all this through.
She, of course, wants independence, and as soon as possible. She also knows that to rush her fence would risk losing the vote permanently. The cost of that to both her party and the country could be severe.
At the same time, she must act in the national interest in maintaining maximum pressure on David Cameron’s government as the process of further devolution continues. If he ignores the clearly expressed feelings of Scotland, he risks doing more damage to the Union than anything the SNP could do. We need to watch the detail.
She also knows that a sense that the SNP could take its eye off the ball on the policy responsibilities it has in pursuit of its constitutional goal could damage the party at next year’s election, and the economy and employment in the meantime. Her instincts are to broaden her government’s appeal, not to entrench it. In this she is right.
Look at the 54 pages of detail in the Ipsos MORI poll last week and a number of striking conclusions leap out. The first is that the only thing that increases support for another referendum is the passage of time. Fewer people support having a vote in the next five years than actually want independence. A European “out” vote would move that marginally, but only time carries it towards 60 per cent, as the poll suggests, with a significant increase in support for a vote happening in the next ten years.
My instincts are that the next time we choose, the country will be far more unified and ready in every sense. But more than 60 per cent of 25 to 55-year-olds already say they would vote Yes. And just less than 60 per cent of those born here would, although fewer than 40 per cent born outside Scotland agree. This tells us that significant work remains to convince and reassure the hundreds of thousands of Scots born elsewhere.
There is also no doubt that further work is needed in framing and articulating the economic case, both in terms of currency and institutions, and in how the public finances will work.
On the latter, by the middle of the next Holyrood Parliament, the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects Scotland’s public finance deficit will be a lower percentage of GDP than the UK’s has been in the past seven years even with the oil price collapse. Interesting?
In the meantime, the Scottish Government should prioritise increasing the tax base on which it then levies taxes to fund public services, rather than increasing the tax rate and shrinking the base.
Prove this works with the limited powers they have and the case for completing them will be impeccable.
How to do it though? Encourage business and wealth creation, employment growth, income growth, investment, immigration, exports and tourism.
Easy to say much harder to do, but the “how” should be debated, tested and tried every day at Holyrood. The culture change involved will be the making of us.
If the assignment of a portion of VAT revenues is to be meaningful, it must follow the actual money raised rather than a Whitehall guesstimate. The Treasury will do all it can to resist that. It is this sort of detail that matters in the process of the Scotland Bill.
If we can re-frame our political debate to be more ambitious about how we can grow and lift the whole economic tide, the potential prizes for all are immense.
If we chase short-term political tokens or place sticking plasters over Whitehall-imposed wounds then we sell our future short.
When polled earlier this year only 7 per cent of Scots wanted to pay higher income tax with more than 70 per cent wanting it the same or lower. Any serious governing party is going to have to prioritise economic success if it wants to achieve its social ends and unify support for its programme.
I remain very optimistic that our country can put the divisions of last year’s vote behind us, and harness the positive engagement and responsibilities that followed. Where that story ends? Well that will always be up to us all. «