Lesley Riddoch: Naysayers netting negative reports

David Cameron quickly got over his 'principled' objection to new EC president Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: PA
David Cameron quickly got over his 'principled' objection to new EC president Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: PA
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It seems that voting Yes may be better for our health than sticking to an increasingly sick UK, writes Lesley Riddoch

It’s the height of the silly season. Unseasonal heatwaves have swept Scotland. Beaches here on the Hebrides are packed. Scots have even been seen swimming. City streets are quiet. Summer sales are on. Politicians are abroad. Voters are focused on sunscreen, Playstation for the kids and time off in the sun. It’s hardly the time for a massive breakthrough in the independence campaign. Yet last week was a turning point – the week in which key narratives in the Better Together campaign began to crumble.

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First there was David Cameron’s about-turn over Europe. The prime minister had publicly attacked Jean-Claude Juncker – the EU’s preferred candidate to head the European Commission – as an arch-federalist incapable of “modernising” Europe. Almost as implacable a foe as Alex Salmond, you might say. But Cameron’s “principled and deep-seated” objections evaporated the minute the Luxembourg politician was elected. Within days Cameron was negotiating with Juncker to guarantee a Brit gets the key economic brief in the European Commission even though the likely Tory grandee, Lord Hill, seems reluctant, replying “non, non, non” to an interviewer earlier this year.

Ah, well. Cometh the hour, cometh the volte face. The day after the deal was apparently clinched Cameron and Juncker were pictured as big buddies, exchanging awkward-looking “high fives.” Evidently, negotiation with a sworn enemy is possible, when he has the endorsement of a democratic vote. Evidently too, European leaders are unmoved by threats from the British prime minister. Attack, bluster, negotiation and deal are the most familiar dance sequence in world politics. Even frightened Scottish voters are starting to take note.

Meanwhile Scotland on Sunday reported that Mr Juncker is actually “sympathetic” to an independent Scotland joining the EU, as another politician from a small member state. Well, well, well. Just a week ago, newspaper headlines were so very different. When Juncker claimed the 28-member EU needed “a break from enlargement” the No campaign insisted his remarks meant Scotland would be kept out in the event of a Yes vote. Almost every paper in the land duly proclaimed this news to be a nail in Salmond’s coffin.

Today those claims stand revealed as plain wrong.

According to Scotland on Sunday “the hierarchy in Brussels would be unlikely to exclude an independent Scotland from the EU as it is already signed-up to core EU requirements … on gender equality and workers’ rights”. It seems an independent Scotland would be a “special and separate case”, distinct from Balkan applicants which have yet to satisfy all entry criteria. Juncker’s words don’t quite amount to automatic membership – not yet. But they completely scotch the year-long scare story that Scotland would be excluded from the EU.

And perhaps that reminds voters of other “lines in the sand” – from Ruth Davidson’s objection to further devolution to George Osborne’s “Hands off the Pound” speech, contradicted a week later by a mystery minister.

Secondly, there was concrete evidence that Scottish Labour voters are turning towards a Yes vote. The latest TNS survey (usually unfavourable to the SNP) suggests 28 per cent of 2011’s Labour voters plan to vote Yes – up from 21 per cent over the previous three months once “don’t knows” are stripped out.

This backs up anecdotal evidence. At a recent meeting in Maryhill Burgh Halls a young former Labour Party member told me of a phone offer to rejoin the party at a special referendum rate of just £5. He told the canvasser he planned to vote Yes along with his whole family – Labour voters for several generations – and asked how progressive voters could have faith in a party offering the weakest devolution deal to Scots. To his surprise the phone lobbyist agreed.

Anecdote is hardly worth repeating until it’s part of a measurable trend. That trend – the collapse of automatic opposition to independence amongst Labour voters – is now gathering pace, thanks to Peter Kilfoyle.

The left-leaning former Liverpool Walton MP and Labour minister announced his support for Scottish independence last week, describing it as the first step towards loosening London’s grip on power throughout these islands.

He praised the Yes campaign message as “positive and aspirational” and described the No campaign as “very, very negative”. Those comments may reassure Labour voters who worry that a Yes vote would leave English voters in the lurch.

Doubtless Labour hope a new celebrity-studded Let’s Stay Together video will tug at the heartstrings.

But I’d guess the most earnest pleading from Eddie Izzard has less impact than a few soft words from the truly credible and hitherto non-political former chief medical officer for Scotland, Sir Harry Burns. This weekend he told Radio Scotland that if independence meant “people felt able to engage more with local government, with central government and make choices more easily for themselves then it would improve their health”. He added: “At the moment, decisions being made in England are very different from decisions being made in Scotland. That is very important because I fear for the way the health service is going in England.”

Given the number of Scots employed in the NHS, the longevity of Sir Harry’s distinguished career and the venerated position of the NHS in Scotland – his words count for a lot.

Finally, it’s becoming apparent that No campaigners are very, very thin on the ground.

The Sunday Times reports that BBC Question Time producers sent Better Together advance notice of debate dates to give them “a head start in spreading the news” amongst supporters. The Yes campaign say no similar “heads up” appears to have been given to them by Mentorn Media – the independent company behind David Dimbleby’s network Question Time and BBC Scotland’s independence debates chaired by James Cook. In fact, Yes campaigners apply in droves for any opportunity to speak and question – No supporters don’t.

This was apparently the case for the audience in the BBC Scotland Orkney debate where I was a panellist. Doubtless that’s why despairing producers feel compelled to give Better Together extra time to drum up trade in the interests of securing a balanced audience. Blame not Aunty, or even her indy producers – blame the relentlessly negative nature of the Better Together campaign and the consequent lack of enthusiasm on the ground.

Sooner – not later – this hotly-denied Enthusiasm Gap will matter.

And then, in hindsight, this quiet, hot midsummer week may prove to have been pivotal.