Eddie Barnes: Game-changers to come for Yes camp

Polls suggest the case for independence is struggling to make an impact, but three imminent flashpoints promise to radically influence the referendum

Polls suggest the case for independence is struggling to make an impact, but three imminent flashpoints promise to radically influence the referendum

AT A recent meeting in Whitehall on the Scottish independence referendum, one of the UK government’s senior civil servants was poring over the latest polls in the contest. The top politicians in the UK parties were always on at him, he complained, telling him there were no grounds for complacency in the campaign. “The thing is,” he declared to colleagues, examining the figures before him, “there are grounds for complacency”.

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“No Complacency” is the mantra of the pro-UK Better Together campaign. But of itself it illustrates the position the pro-UK side finds itself in as the marathon referendum contest winds up for its Christmas break. Last week, two more polls surfaced. And while they offered a few crumbs of comfort for the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, they only served to highlight the obstinacy of popular opinion on the Big Question.

Two weeks before, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the world’s media to Glasgow for the launch of the White Paper. Aides had hyped it up as a massive moment for the cause. Last week, Ipsos Mori concluded that backing for Yes has risen by 3 per cent to 34 per cent. A few days later, YouGov put it at 33 per cent. All this did was to bring the figures roughly back to where they were a year ago. At the start of this year, Yes Scotland’s chief executive Blair Jenkins had declared that by the end of 2013, the polls would have tightened. Yet the gap that exists right now, says Ipsos Mori’s Mark Diffley, would currently be enough to hand the No side victory by “a significant margin”.

Both sides in the campaign have had their internal difficulties in recent weeks. Off-the-record briefing against Alistair Darling’s “comatose” leadership has thrown up questions over whether Better Together has much to inspire Scots in the nine months to come. Meanwhile, doubts over Yes Scotland’s discipline and focus have arisen again. After supermarkets issued a warning about the costs of doing business after independence, senior Yes Scotland staffer Stan Blackley managed to make unwanted headlines by tweeting – in a personal capacity – “Wouldn’t it be great if Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Asda just left Scotland after Yes vote?” (Political campaigns, says one Yes Scotland figure wryly, are like sausage factories – it sometimes would be better not seeing what’s going on inside).

But these silly season stories serve to highlight the lack of a bigger story – one that would show Yes on the march. There remain optimists on the Yes side, with bookmakers revealing last week that they received two £5,000 bets on Scotland backing independence. But if the mood of the nation is to change then something major needs to happen. Attention therefore turns to the run-in next year. Are there flashpoints that could cause a sudden shift? If so, what are they?

Three potential political events have been identified by Yes strategists for particular attention as they peer ahead into 2014.

The first comes in spring next year when both the Labour and Conservative parties are due to report back with proposals on how they plan to run a devolved Scotland in the event that people vote No. Both have set up commissions to examine the case for more powers going to Holyrood. Certainly in Labour’s case, it seems likely that the review will recommend that far greater power over taxation is shifted to Edinburgh.

Stephen Noon of the Yes Scotland campaign acknowledges that “if there is a set of powers on tax and welfare then that will have an impact on some people who are considering Yes”. But, he believes, the effect of the reports will also be to shift the way people examine the choice ahead of them. “The crucial period is when people reflect not just on independence, but the choice between the different options – Yes or No,” he adds.

All the attention and scrutiny in 2013, says Noon, has been on independence and the costs involved. Spring 2014 will see a shift to the costs, compromises and cuts planned within the Union. “The gaping hole [in the debate],” he says, “is what does a No mean?” Further Tory-led misery and austerity, the SNP will argue – plus, it claims, the potential for Scotland’s generous block grant to be axed. Scaremongering, it seems, will not just be a unionist tactic.

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The next potential flashpoint comes in late May. Immediately before the “short” referendum campaign begins, the UK heads to the polls in the European elections. Ukip is now widely expected to come out on top. Very little of that support is likely to come from north of the Border. And though polling does not back the suggestion that Scotland is far more Europhiliac than England, such a result would help to prop up the notion that England and Scotland are moving in radically different directions (something that would be then underlined if Labour and the Conservatives reacted to a Ukip victory with some “Little Englishness” of their own).

All this could be an “important factor” in the way people in Scotland vote in the referendum, says Noon. Pro-independence supporters point, for example, to comments by Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Higgs last week, who said his decision on whether to vote Yes or No next year “would depend a little bit on how much progress the lunatic right of the Conservative party makes in trying to get us out of Europe”. He added: “If the UK were threatening to withdraw from Europe, I would certainly want Scotland to be out of that.” A sense that the UK was being represented on the continent by Ukip might make the likes of Higgs shift to Yes.

And finally, say the Yes side, there is the proximity of the 2015 general election, scheduled for a year in May. The polls currently put Labour in front, and show Ed Miliband heading to Downing Street. But, it is argued by the pro-independence side, any sign that the Conservatives are heading back to office will concentrate minds wonderfully on the choice on offer. It gets to what Alex Salmond declared in the White Paper was at the “heart” of the independence campaign: “The power to choose who we should be governed by and the power to build a country that reflects our priorities.” The First Minister added: “It will no longer be possible for governments to be elected and pursue policies against the wishes of the Scottish people”.

The Yes side believes that the possibility of Messrs Cameron and Osborne returning to run the UK a year after the big choice will be front and centre of people’s minds next autumn. A Yes vote, they will argue, is a way of ensuring their writ does not run in Scotland.

Over in the No camp, these three potential “game-changers” are taken with varying degrees of seriousness. The last one – the idea that people will back independence to preemptively prevent a future Conservative government – is largely dismissed. Better Together staff say their focus groups show that people understand clearly that next year’s referendum is way more significant than the choice of party at a general election. At a private meeting last year, when the idea was put to him, George Osborne was heard to express astonishment that it could even be considered a factor. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, meanwhile, has his own retort to the argument that Scotland doesn’t get the government it voted for; Lib Dem voting Orkney and Shetland – which he represents – has never voted SNP, he notes, so should it be demanding independence from nationalist-run Scotland?

The pro-UK party proposals on devolution, meanwhile, are not seen as a problem, but as an ace up the sleeve, enabling the No camp to show they have a positive vision for the future. Until now, the pro-independence side has tried to frame the question as “Westminster v Holyrood”, says Blair McDougall, the chief executive of Better Together. But he adds: “Once we get past the spring, the frame of “Westminster v Holyrood” won’t make sense. It will be clearer that we are making the argument for devolution. The frame will change. That is important.”

And on the question of a Ukip win, McDougall insists he is “not worried” about its impact on the referendum campaign. If it did happen, he adds, it would force the pro-independence side to pursue a “narrative of division and difference” between England and Scotland, he says. That, he adds, would be “difficult to reconcile with the claim that they’re running a positive campaign”. But a Ukip earthquake in May would surely be difficult for the pro-UK side to counter in Scotland. “Never under-estimate how nutty shire Tory MPs could become on the back of this,” says a senior academic who is studying the campaign.

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Yet while these three issues may be the potential game-changers over the next year, they fact remains that they will not alter greatly the key heart and head arguments on independence that will guide peoples’ views. The Yes side, says Noon, plans to move from the big message that “Scotland has what it takes” to a more personal message: “The crucial issue is ‘what does it mean for me?’” Central to the campaign’s strategy is the belief that, by answering people’s concerns about the economic implications and reassuring them on the detail, it can then unlock the innate sympathy it claims people in Scotland have for the idea – what it calls the “natural majority” for independence.

It will be a push to do so, Noon acknowledges. “Can I guarantee that in nine months’ time the people of Scotland will have complete confidence in Scotland’s economic advantages? Of course I can’t. But I believe that we will have persuaded people. It is an easy presentation to make; how can you not believe Scotland has the ability to be an independent country?” Over at Better Together, McDougall doesn’t challenge that assertion. Rather he questions the premise that the Yes side are working on. “It assumes that the reasons that people are leaning to No are to do with a lack of belief in Scotland,” he says. That’s not the case – no-one, he says, feels any less proudly Scottish for backing the Union.

It will also be a mistake for Yes to focus on confidence and identity, claims McDougall. “People just do not believe that the economic questions can be answered with a blithe declaration that ‘we have what it takes’,” he adds. The detailed questions over the EU, and the currency, will go on. He tells a story of a waiter in a restaurant he visited last week who, on a napkin, drew a diagram illustrating the lack of control Scotland would have as the junior partner in a currency union with England.

Yet, McDougall acknowledges, the ­Better Together campaign is “haunted” by the 2011 Holyrood election when, just a few weeks before polling day, the SNP suddenly surged from nowhere to claim victory. The fear that haunts the pro-UK side is that, from nowhere, people suddenly shift their view. It points to the real game-changing moment of this campaign – the moment when the voters of Scotland finally turn their serious and undivided attention to the choice at hand. The Yes camp believe that day has still not arrived. For their sakes, they had better be right. «

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23