Lesley Riddoch: Referendum boat becalmed – for now

The scene is a bit of a repetitive Groundhog Day at the moment. Picture: Contributed
The scene is a bit of a repetitive Groundhog Day at the moment. Picture: Contributed
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There is no overwhelming interest in the referendum down south, perhaps until closer to D-day, writes Lesley Riddoch

Another weekend, another opinion poll…and with it the growing realisation that Scotland’s stuck in a political Groundhog Day, where nothing that’s enlivening will happen until the referendum is almost upon us.

Amongst political anoraks and pollsters, the big Sunday news was an Ipsos Mori poll showing half of Britons fear the UK will be weaker if Scotland leaves. This was “the first poll to discover the extent to which Scotland is valued by its neighbours” and found 47 per cent think the UK will be weaker without Scotland (8 per cent said stronger) and 48 per cent want Scotland to remain in the UK (while 28 per cent want Scotland to leave). Better Together says this proves people across Britain acknowledge the important contribution Scotland makes. It’s nice to be appreciated, isn’t it?

Yet delve a little deeper and the full survey results show a more nuanced picture. Some 35 per cent think Scottish independence will make no difference at all to the strength of the UK and when pollsters specify damage to England rather than Britain, “no negative impact” is the majority verdict – no difference (42 per cent), a stronger England (16 per cent), and a weaker England (33 per cent). Hardly overwhelming panic south of the Border. Or over-weaning interest. Asked to name the most important events of 2014, 73 per cent of Scots put the referendum in the top three compared with just 15 per cent of English respondents, who gave a higher rating to the World Cup and the arrival of Romanian and Bulgarian workers. That’s not exactly a heartfelt “don’t go”.

Perhaps rUK will become more engaged with Scotland’s Big Vote as the actual day approaches. Or perhaps Better Together’s “love bombs” will change things – English celebrities who’ve volunteered to say how much they want Scotland to remain part of the UK. “Love bombing” was apparently invented by Canadians who sought to persuade the Quebec folk to remain part of the country before their independence referendum in 1995. Who knows what impact a heartfelt TV plea from David Beckham or Eddie Izzard might have? Mind you, who knows if they are even on the list? No names have been released so Twitter has been alive, concocting the cold calling list from hell – George Osborne, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Peter Mandelson, William Hague and Nick Clegg. As one mischievous pro-independence tweeter concluded – with a team like this on the phones, the job’s done.

Indeed fans of social media have had more fun with the bizarre suggestion David Cameron has enlisted president Vladimir Putin in the fight against Scottish nationalism. Russia’s leading news agency Itar-Tass reported that a source from the Prime Minister’s office was “extremely interested” in support from Russia on the referendum which could “send shockwaves across the whole of Europe”. The absurd prospect prompted Wings over Scotland to coin #indyrefski as a new Twitter hashtag beside a mocked-up Better Together billboard featuring Mr Putin, naked to the waist astride a brown bear pounding through a river with the caption: “Just say Nyet.”

Evidently the punning genius of Scots has been working overtime this weekend – Taps Affski, From Russia With Love-bomb, Stalin For Time, The Spiv Who Came in From the Cold and From Russia, With Gove. Nor has the serious point been missed. It looks like David Cameron won’t debate Scottish independence with Alex Salmond, but he will involve Vladimir Putin.

One story has had more credibility than the other – one has had more social media airplay. But they have one thing in common. Their impact – indeed their very believability – depends entirely on the reader’s existing view about independence. Few will be swayed by anything they read this weekend, no matter how statistically impressive or cunningly funny. Groundhog Day personified.

Every weekend between now and D-Day looks set to have an independence referendum-related opinion poll whose results will somehow “prove” victory for all sides. Whoopee.

Nor can we expect much real innovation from individual members of the Great and Good. Former head of Glasgow city council Steven Purcell told weekend papers that the Union is unfit for purpose and that he backs devo max for Scotland to redress the spending bias in which London has “sucked in money and resources”. Purcell wants Holyrood to have control over corporation tax and oil revenues to put Scotland’s relationship with the UK on a more even footing. It’s an interesting contribution now but it would have been a brave and significant one before the devo max option was removed from the ballot paper. Equally, Gordon Brown has supported new moves to empower and entrench the devolved Scottish Parliament. But he didn’t find time to do that while in power and his “maximum devolution of powers” excludes welfare and taxes – two areas over which Scots have consistently demanded more control in every opinion poll. Do those views matter? Politicians and public figures measure concession by the distance they have travelled in a lifetime – even if that still leaves them playing catch-up with the ever-moving tide of current public opinion.

The SNP are in much the same becalmed policy boat. A BBC Scotland documentary last week highlighted the extraordinary fact that 432 individuals still own half of all privately owned land in Scotland. The odds of a radical solution by the Land Reform Review Group with pre-referendum endorsement by the Scottish Government are now very low. Evidently, this and many other “controversial” issues will now be left until after 18 September. So the phoney war with its phoney political victories will go on. It’s like a gentler, latter-day version of the Somme – where distant generals deploy resources without any real shift in the front line. Mercifully, today’s resources are not real lives but campaign cash, public interest and general belief in the capacity of politicians to enliven debate.

So what’s ahead to convince swithering voters? Real events, like the European elections revealing the real size of the Ukip vote in England? Or real (believable) offers for the post-No vote scenario in Scotland by Labour and the Tories?

Perhaps instead, the real antidote to Groundhog Day lies in the animated, informal conversations happening every day between ordinary Scots. Pollsters should not mistake the drearily repetitive nature of official constitutional campaigns with the genuine interest that lies beyond.

In 2014, the sap is rising.