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
Much of the unpleasantness is to be found on social media, where public figures and organisations have been vilified for their opinions or actions, notably the Scottish soupmaker Baxters, which became a target when a member of the company’s founding family donated money to the pro-union campaign.
The difficult for many people is that they are not yet sure what Scottish independence means, as a Yes result would be followed by two years of exit negotiations with London.
The full scope of Scottish independence thereafter would be determined by that election, according to Angus Robertson, an SNP member of the House of Commons. “That will be the starting point for parties. It isn’t a fixed line in the sand,” he says. “This is wider than the SNP; this is not our property. I would be delighted to win the referendum in 2014 and overjoyed to see the SNP re-elected in 2016 as the first sovereign government, but we live in a democracy, so people might decide that they want somebody else to do it.”
The future is always as yet unwritten, says Blair Jenkins. “Independence is all about opportunity and the democratic right to make our own decisions according to our own priorities and aspirations.” For many, such freedom offers uncertainty, not opportunity.
Essentially, voters are being faced with a straight choice between independence and remaining in the UK when, in fact, most want something in between: more self-government than they have today but with some powers shared.
Last year the Scottish Social Attitudes survey reported that 35 per cent supported full independence, 32 per cent wanted greater devolution – the so-called devo max option – and a quarter favoured the continuation of the status quo.
Before the Yes Scotland meeting in Lerwick, Alex Salmond and his ministers had stood before an audience in the Mareel, the town’s well-equipped cinema and auditorium, for one of the four meetings with voters that the Scottish cabinet holds each year.
“I am 58 years old,” he told them. “For two-thirds of my life Scotland has been ruled by governments which I didn’t vote for. Scotland has voted one way, but we have got a different government in Westminster, which is not democratic.”
It is an argument he has made at every opportunity, and he will continue to do so; it could become particularly powerful if the Conservatives’ summer rise in confidence is matched by improving opinion-poll figures.
Since devolution, in 1999, during which time it has been led first by Labour and then by SNP minority and majority administrations, Scotland has drifted away from the rest of the United Kingdom, believing that it follows a more social-democratic tune.
The belief has foundations. Tuition fees are not imposed on third-level students, the privatisation of parts of the National Health Service has been resisted; prescription charges have been abolished; and London-ordered welfare reforms are sharply more unpopular.
The crucial middle ground to be convinced are Labour supporters in the west of Scotland, who vote Labour tribally; they will be convinced only if they are sure that the continuation of such services, and their development after independence, will not bring higher taxes – or at least not for them.
If, a little more than a year out from the referendum, the Scottish National Party faces challenges, then so do those who want to continue the union with the rest of the UK, even if at the moment everything seems to be going their way.
The links with the Conservatives are difficult, and could, depending on the political landscape, become poisonous; while voters will demand to know what they are offering in terms of more devolution the closer polling day draws near.
Here there are problems, as the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have different thoughts, but Scottish voters were sold a pup in 1979 when they rejected a Labour offer of devolution on the promise of a better one from the Conservatives, which never materialised. If they reject independence they will not make the same mistake again.