Asked in a recent poll to identify the “most significant threat to Scotland” most voters there ranked “a UK government elected by the rest of the UK” over a terrorist attack, a nuclear assault from North Korea or an invasion of space monsters. Admittedly the survey was commissioned by a group canvassing for a Yes vote in the referendum next September 18th on the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Most polls show a majority of roughly two to one against independence. But this one reminds us that context and campaigning will matter hugely over the next 12 months. The result cannot simply be extrapolated from current trends, as many voters are undecided or could change sides.
Scots have a more communitarian value system than Conservative-ruled England and want to see that translated into public policy and political choices, particularly on education, welfare and health. Most resent domination by the southeast of Britain over the rest of the island and support either deeper devolution of tax and spending powers or the independence Yes campaigners say is the one sure way to get them.
The great uncertainties in their debate concern economic prosperity and political positioning. Those who think an independent Scotland would be more prosperous are the most determined Yes supporters; but polling shows this argument has yet to be made convincingly by the leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond and his colleagues. Support for independence falls away sharply the more voters believe they would then be worse off financially. The position of Scotland in Europe remains unclear, while Mr Salmond has sought to reduce perceived risks by saying an independent state could keep the monarchy and sterling and stay in Nato.
The campaign will bring more clarity to these questions in Scotland itself. But much too will depend on how the No side makes it argument – and particularly on how the Conservatives present themselves in Scottish eyes.