Independence day: Could Scotland really leave the UK?
If the country’s in-or-out referendum were held tomorrow, two-thirds of voters would likely opt to stay in the union. That leaves SNP leader Alex Salmond and the Scotland Yes campaign with a mountain to climb
X marks the Scot: campaigning is well under way for next year’s referendum. Photograph: Mike Wilkinson/Bloomberg
Monarch of the glens: SNP leader Alex Salmond with Queen Elizabeth last month; he says she would remain head of state after a Yes vote. Photograph: David Cheskin/WPA pool/Getty Images
For a time there is a chance that the yoga class in room 16 of Islesburgh Community Centre in Lerwick will have to move, though in the end the pro-Scottish independence group across the landing, in room 12, does not need the extra space
The Yes Scotland meeting in the Shetland Islands’ capital is one of hundreds that have taken or will take place before the Scots decide whether they should break away from the United Kingdom in a referendum on September 18th next year.
For now the polls are steady, with two-thirds or so of those questioned saying they are likely to reject the independence call led by the country’s Scottish National Party first minister, Alex Salmond – though, in truth, most Scots have yet to engage.
At the well-attended room 12 meeting a few of the currents that will be significant in the months to come are discernible, particularly the SNP’s need to ensure that the Yes campaign is seen as more than just an SNP front. The top table includes Yes Scotland’s chief executive, a former journalist named Blair Jenkins; Scotland’s SNP minister for education, Mike Russell; Celia Fitzgerald of Labour for Independence; and Brian Nugent of Free Scotland, which opposes membership of the European Union.
During a question-and-answer session a member of the audience speaks admiringly of the Scandinavian high-tax and high-quality-public-services model, though Russell quickly intervenes. “I am in sympathy with that, but we will never get it off the ground unless we get independence. We need to focus on that,” he says, conscious that talk of higher taxes will frighten some voters.
Labour for Independence, meanwhile, wants Labour to revert to its pre-Blair identity, insisting that while it is “open to the possibilities of nationalisation or renationalisation of energy and transport” it does not promote nationalisation for the sake of it.
The Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party object to the SNP’s preference for lower corporation tax; in sharp contrast, some of the hundreds of businesses that have signed up to back independence favour capitalism, red in tooth and claw.
The SNP “wants to keep the Greens, the Socialists and others on board to make it look like it is more than the SNP, but it would probably help if they were more in control of it. I suspect that they will take more control and tighten it up as time goes by,” says one close observer.
The breadth of opinion in the Yes campaign causes its own difficulties, as the middle-ground voters who will have to be persuaded if the referendum is to be won are exactly that: the middle ground and conservative with a small C, if not supporters of the Conservative Party.
For months the SNP, which rules with a majority in the Scottish parliament, in Holyrood, has sought to neutralise points of concern for voters: sterling would continue to be used after independence, and Queen Elizabeth would remain head of state. Also, Scotland would remain in the EU and Nato, though the UK’s fleet of submarine-carried nuclear weapons, held at Faslane naval base, on the Clyde, would have to go.
On each of these issues Salmond and the SNP have been wounded, particularly after Salmond’s insistence, late last year, that the Scots’ position in the EU was unquestioned led to an “EU liar” headline in the Scottish Sun, which had once supported him.
Yes Scotland and the SNP bridle over the campaign run by the anti-independence group Better Together, whose leading figure is the former Labour chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling.
Last month even anti-independence campaigners accepted that some of their people had over-reached when they claimed that independence would mean big increases in mobile-telephone roaming charges.
Nevertheless, fury and frustration are evident from some on the Yes side, who find that they are forever answering a new Better Together charge rather than laying out a vision for a new Scotland.
But there are questions. Before the referendum battle began in earnest, for example, the SNP demanded that control of immigration be devolved to Scotland from London; since then it has backed “a proactive immigration policy – with a Scottish green card for skilled, committed new Scots”.