Scotland’s uncertain vote


With just five months to go until Scotland’s referendum on independence, the Yes side has gained ground but still falls significantly short of a majority in the opinion polls, while the No side is troubled by self-doubt as to whether it can maintain its lead. By this stage all the principal political players and interest groups have declared their hands, most in favour of staying in the United Kingdom, but many voters remain undecided. So a great deal will depend on which side mounts the most effective campaign between now and September 18th.

On that basis the momentum currently favours the Yes side. Their leaders have made the more coherent and passionate case for independence as an empowering choice for Scotland in the face of major criticisms questioning its economic, security and welfare viability. Their organisations are much more powerful and visible on the ground and appear to have a clearer strategy to win over undecided voters. They acknowledge the risks of independence but argue these are outweighed by the opportunities. And they have a growing appeal to voters who want more powers devolved to Scotland but fear this would not happen if independence is rejected.

The case for Scotland to stay in the UK has been devolved to the Better Together alliance of the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats led by the Labour politician Alasdair Darling. He has concentrated on methodically rebutting the arguments of the Yes side with powerful support from peak industrial, financial and other business interests. But his style is dry and cerebral and the alliance is suffering a crisis of morale expressed in dissatisfaction with his performance and partisan arguments about strategy and objectives in the Conservative and Labour parties. The Conservatives have little support in Scotland and their Eurosceptic wing concentrates more on winning the case on EU membership than on Scotland.

Labour too faces problems as the main party defending the union. Its Scottish leaders are consistently outplayed by Alex Salmond’s political skills and rhetorical brilliance as head of the Scottish government and Labour’s main opponent there. They are divided on whether deeper devolution after a No vote would benefit Scotland but weaken their own party’s political base in the UK as a whole. This means key groups of Labour supporters could swing to the Yes side in what has become a key factor in the referendum’s political arithmetic.A great deal is at stake in this debate for the UK’s internal and external futures. Scottish independence would throw the remaining union into doubt, particularly for unionists in the North. And even if independence is rejected this time political change in the UK would probably keep it on the agenda for years to come.

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