Leaders: Gut reaction to independence debate

Rise in support for No vote suggests most people have no stomach for bruising negotiations

Picture: Ian Georgeson
Picture: Ian Georgeson

AT FIRST glance, the results of our exclusive ICM opinion poll today might seem contradictory. On the one hand we report that the No side has gained five percentage points in the past month, while the Yes side has stood still. Obviously good news for the No camp. And yet, at the same time, on the two issues dominating the referendum debate in recent weeks – currency and Europe – the Yes campaign is comfortably winning the arguments. On currency, Scots tend to back a currency union with the rest of the UK (rUK) after independence, and they believe – on balance – that this is what would actually happen, despite what Chancellor George Osborne says. They also believe an independent Scotland would be accepted as a member of the European Union, despite what European Commission president José Manuel Barroso says. So how can it be simultaneously true that the Yes camp is winning the arguments but losing the campaign? The answer is not that difficult to divine, and it holds important lessons for both the Yes and No camps in this historic referendum.

The truth of the matter seems to be – as ­Professor John Curtice points out in his analysis for us today – that these may not be the defining issues in the referendum. The obsessions of strategists may not be the obsessions of the public. People are complex. It is too simplistic to think that you can tot up their beliefs on the pound, Europe, inequality, Trident and austerity and then predict if they will vote Yes or No. That is to show little emotional intelligence, which the best strategists know is the most important analytical tool in any successful campaign.

So what is the reason for the five-point bump for the No camp? Time will tell, but a good guess at this stage might be that the currency and EU issues have affected public opinion in a more subtle but perhaps more important way. Stand back from these debates and what has become crystal clear in recent weeks is that any transition to independence following a Yes vote would be a turbulent and rocky road, with both Scotland and the rUK aggressively pursuing their self-interest in extremely tough negotiations for at least a year-and-a-half and probably longer.

Osborne – along with Labour’s Ed Balls and the Lib Dems’ Danny Alexander – is playing hard ball on the pound. So is Alex Salmond, with his threat to refuse to shoulder any UK debt unless there is a currency union. Those who soothingly predicted this was going to be a ­“velvet divorce” have been drowned out by the sound of household crockery being smashed off the walls. Perhaps this is what people are reacting to. Perhaps they accept Scotland would emerge from a bruising independence negotiation with what it wanted – but would rather not put themselves, their country, their families and their economy through that bruising process. Perhaps the process itself is offputting.

It is also important to remember that not every­body is a policy wonk. Not by a long stretch. How many Scots could name the four currency options examined by Salmond’s Fiscal Commission? How many could correctly identify which – Scotland or rUK – would be the “successor” state after independence, according to the technicalities of international law? (The answer is, perhaps counter-intuitively, Scotland.) People have lives, families, hobbies, jobs – or no jobs. They have troubles, heartaches and headaches, not least money worries brought about by years of economic hardship. And polling day is still seven months away.

When they do give the future of their country their undivided attention – as most Scots surely will – perhaps the technicalities will be important for some. But for most people it will be simpler than that. It will be a gut thing. It is still early days, and the balance could easily change, but at the moment and by a small margin that gut feeling is favouring the No camp.

Danger of postcode lottery on bicycle lessons

CYCLING is undergoing a revolution in this country. It takes many forms. The success of Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France and the Olympics helped fuel an explosion in the number of people spending every hour of their spare time on two wheels, many of them training for events such as the Etape Caledonia – a gruelling race around hilly Perthshire, which includes cyclists speeding headlong down the slopes of Schiehallion. ­Cycling has become one of the most popular sports for the middle-aged, aided by the fact that pedalling a bike is more forgiving on elderly knees than jogging. Men in middling years who are cycling enthusiasts even have their own acronym – Mamils (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra).

But what of the younger generation? At a time when childhood obesity is a growing problem, encouraging children to cycle would appear to be a no-brainer. And yet, as our news story today shows, there is an alarming postcode lottery when it comes to training programmes to teach primary schoolchildren to cycle safely. The disparities identified by Cycling Scotland are astonishing. In Dundee only 3 per cent of primary schools run Bikeability course, whereas in Aberdeenshire it is 76 per cent.

The good news is that the total number of primary schools offering on-road training is rising. But that is not much consolation for parents in a local authority with little provision, and who want their children taught basic road sense and safety. More than six out of ten schools still have no on-road bicycle training for children.

The Cycling Scotland report raises what should be an obvious question: Why is practical training in road safety for cyclists not part of the basic curriculum for every primary school in Scotland?

Of course, literacy and numeracy and science and social skills are important considerations, but none of them comes before the basic urge to keep our children safe from harm. Children should have the reassurance of such training regardless of where they live. Much of the discretion on whether or not to do this rests with local authorities, some of whom clearly do not see it as a priority. It is surely time for ministers to get a grip of this, and to ensure every child in Scotland has access to training that could, ­ultimately, save lives.