Sam Ghibaldan: Can SNP snatch poll victory?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg's coalition needs strong opposition from Labour, argues Sam Ghibaldan. Picture: Getty
David Cameron and Nick Clegg's coalition needs strong opposition from Labour, argues Sam Ghibaldan. Picture: Getty
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THE independence referendum is the unionists’ to lose, but Labour must provide credible opposition to the Tories to keep Scottish supporters onside, says former Lib Dem adviser Sam Ghibaldan

Selling independence is a thankless task, apparently. The latest Ipsos-Mori poll makes the point starkly, suggesting that of the 56 per cent of voters who have decided how to vote in the referendum, those rejecting independence outnumber the separatists by two to one. That means the SNP is facing a daunting task: it must win over nearly three-quarters of those voters who are currently undecided to ensure victory.

Can the party do it? Well, the SNP has come from behind to achieve victory before. But it is usually at its best playing opposition politics, picking fights on opponents’ territory. Even during its six years in Scottish Government, the SNP has done well by squaring up to the other parties on the battleground of Westminster rather than Holyrood, blaming UK constraints for any difficult decisions it has made.

In the independence referendum, the boot is on the other foot. The SNP’s raison d’etre is centre stage; its arguments are being challenged. That is a deeply uncomfortable place to be, hence all the SNP’s sham indignation about negativity from the other side. The illumination of its plans for independence is causing them real problems; no matter how hard it tries to manufacture coherent arguments, there is no getting away from the reality: it is proposing a huge leap into the unknown. There are few, if any, givens. The case for independence is inevitably more assertion than fact.

That makes it easy for the pro-UK Better Together campaign to cast doubts over the SNP’s claims. All it has to do is ask a few carefully chosen questions and the case for independence looks confused and unsubstantiated: we have seen that over the currency and membership of the European Union.

Most recently, it has been suggested that the SNP’s plan for Scotland to become a member of Nato has been thrown into disarray. Only limited information about the recent meeting between Scottish Government civil servants and Nato has been disclosed, but in terms of public perception what matters is that there are grounds for significant doubt about Scotland’s membership of the alliance in the event of independence.

This is not going to get any better for the First Minister. As he rolls his independence snowball over this difficult ground, it is becoming bigger and more unwieldy. The much-heralded white paper on independence, on which a large army of civil servants has been working for many months, is unlikely to improve matters; it will just offer a bigger target.

Though Salmond originally decided on a long campaign to give himself time to build support, instead he is now running into the problem that voters’ instincts tend to become more risk averse as polling day approaches. They worry about the impact of change on their families and their income, concerns that can readily be exploited by the pro-UK campaign.

The combination of a case for independence of dubious credibility and growing voter caution makes it very unlikely that the SNP will win majority support for its separation blueprint. Hence, the view of the United States electoral guru Nate Silver that there is “virtually no chance” of a vote for separation next year.

But, as former Scottish Labour leader Henry McLeish stated in these pages yesterday, events at the UK level could transform the debate. To use a football analogy, at present the SNP is on the defensive. If, instead, the First Minister succeeds in forcing the play into the pro-UK parties’ half, then Scotland might yet choose separation in the referendum next year.

McLeish’s suggestion that the pro-UK parties should publish devo-max proposals before the referendum is strategically misjudged. That would just ensure further devolution would become the focus of public debate, limiting the scrutiny of the SNP’s independence proposals. Salmond has understood this from the beginning, hence his earlier enthusiasm for a multi-option referendum.

What is certainly true, though, is that the context of debate could be transformed through a voter backlash against the Conservatives or the activities of the UK government. With a multi-option referendum scheme abandoned, the First Minister is seeking other ways of taking the game into his opponents’ half.

So far, the SNP’s attempts to package issues as a UK slap in the face to Scots have failed to gain sustained traction with voters. Its efforts will continue nonetheless; high on Salmond’s wish list for the next 12 months is what he hopes will be a stupid policy announcement from the UK coalition that appears targeted at Scotland. Such a proposal would not have to be as monumentally insensitive as the poll tax to erode Scottish voters’ confidence in the UK; indeed the drip-drip effect of a series of small issues could be just as corrosive.

You might think that the UK government had the internal checks in place to avoid such mistakes, but if it does, it is worringly fallible. Only last month, some genius in the UK government had the brainwave of floating the idea that, in the event of independence, the Trident base at Faslane could remain sovereign UK territory. That idea was quickly disowned, but clearly the stupid policy proposal remains a risk.

A further danger is the overuse of Conservatives in the anti-separation campaign. Polling shows that Scottish Tory and Lib Dem voters are solidly pro-UK; they do not need convincing. But there is a real risk that repeated Tory ministerial excursions north of the Border could push undecided, primarily left-of-centre, voters towards independence.

You might think that obvious. But, whether from hubris or ignorance of Scotland, in April George Osborne appeared in Glasgow to deliver the Treasury’s highly sceptical verdict on an independent Scotland forming a currency union with the remaining UK. No matter how sensible the argument, it beggars belief that anyone in the UK government thought the Chancellor – fairly or not perceived by many in Scotland as the ultimate self-serving Tory – was the person to deliver it. The only person Salmond would prefer even more to make the case against separation is Baroness Thatcher, and, well, that’s not possible anymore.

Scottish Tory-phobia might also be a problem if, at the time of the referendum, David Cameron’s party seems a shoo-in to win the 2015 UK general election. That could lead to undecided but Tory-allergic referendum voters choosing to abstain or even vote Yes. It is beyond Better Together to neutralise this problem – it is unlikely the Tories could be persuaded to throw the 2015 general election – but Labour could play an important role by getting its act together and appearing as if it had the focus and dynamism to take on Cameron’s party.

Voters’ motivations are often negative rather than positive. They tend to vote against people, parties or ideas they dislike or fear. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, for instance, voters punished the Lib Dems for their mistakes in the Westminster coalition.

Such negative voting patterns could well determine the outcome of the referendum. That means Better Together must continue to deploy the stick as well as the carrot to motivate voters to turn out against separation, highlighting the risks of independence alongside the security and benefits offered by the UK.

But the pro-UK parties are just as critical. It would help if Labour looked capable of winning the 2015 election. More important still, the UK coalition must exercise greater self-restraint and discipline to avoid alienating undecided Scottish voters. Can that be too much to ask?

• Sam Ghibaldan is a former special adviser to Liberal Democrat ministers in the Scottish Government