Scottish referendum countdown begins

Opinion: A real threat to Scotland’s place in Union would boost anti-independence side

‘In truth, Better Together has had plenty of room for improvement, since it has struggled up to now to create a language that is appealing, not off-putting for Scots.’ Above, Better Together leader Alistair DarlingPhotograph: Danny Lawson/PA

‘In truth, Better Together has had plenty of room for improvement, since it has struggled up to now to create a language that is appealing, not off-putting for Scots.’ Above, Better Together leader Alistair DarlingPhotograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Wed, Jun 18, 2014, 00:01

Better Together, the campaign bidding to defeat Alex Salmond’s call for Scottish independence in September’s referendum, is getting better as Scots edge closer to voting.

Last week, they held a vibrant gathering in Maryhill, Glasgow; even managing to find a new voice – 18-year-old Shona Munro – able to articulate attractively a pro-union message.

In truth, Better Together has had plenty of room for improvement, since it has struggled up to now to create a language that is appealing, not offputting for Scots.

The challenge it has faced – compared with the far simpler, more idealistic platform available to pro-independence campaigners – has, however, been difficult. “What do we want? More of the same!” was never going to set pulses racing – though pro-union parties are now closer to an agreed offer of extra devolution if Scots vote No in September.

Left without a William Wallace-like call for freedom, “Better Together”, instead, has issued warnings about currency, welfare and other issues.Though negative, often doom-laden, the warnings have worked with a majority of Scots up to now if the polls are to be believed.

Last week, dozens of people, mostly against independence – or “separation”, as Better Together terms it – gathered in a Stirling museum to hear Labour’s John Reid. Strikingly, most have come by their own route to a decision that the referendum should be defeated and they should stay in the United Kingdom.

However, they were less confident that they had the language to justify that choice in conversation with neighbours, or with friends of a different persuasion.

Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown – whose reach is best within the Scottish Labour clan – last week said London’s refusal to consider a sterling currency union with Scotland had rebounded.Equally though, it is true that however much the pro-union campaign has lacked poetry its warnings on bread-and-butter issues have seeped into the consciousness.

The voting starting line is far nearer than September 18th. Postal votes will issue in just seven weeks’ time.

Appeal to working class

The source of September’s votes is as important as their number, since the Yes campaign – or parts of it, anyway – is seeking votes in working class communities where voting has fallen in recent decades. If this plan works, the social make-up of the result will differ from everyday elections.

Illustrating the difficulties of winning referendums, Ireland has shown that the side making the case for change needs to be well ahead and must then fend off challenges in the final straight.

In Scotland, there was clear evidence last autumn – some of it anecdotal, some from opinion polls – that the Yes side had the wind in its sails, but was still behind.Today, the Yes side has not fallen back, but neither has it continued to make ground – apart from the findings of a panel-based poll (which has consistently given higher figures for the Yes vote) earlier this week.

The latest TNS/MRBI monthly poll, meanwhile, reports 30 per cent questioned say they will vote Yes, 42 per cent say No, and 28 per cent – still an extraordinarily high figure – are undecided.

In reality, the latter number is probably smaller, since there is reluctance in some parts of Scottish society to declare opinions – mostly, but not entirely, on the No side. The reluctance is understandable. Like Ireland, Scotland is a small country. Neighbours have little desire to fall out with each other, for reasons of politeness, or caution.

Equally, however, some on the No side, particularly those involved in business, note that Alex Salmond will still be Scottish first minister on September 19th whatever happens.

If the don’t knows are excluded, and if the TNS/MRBI opinion poll is right, then 41 per cent of Scots will say Yes and 59 per cent will say No – a highly significant rebuff for Salmond if it happened.

However, three months is an age. The Better Together campaign is promising “a 100-day pledge” campaign.

Ironically, the anti-independence side needs the existence of a real threat to Scotland’s place in the union if it is to be sure of getting its support out to the polling stations.

Differential turnout

Time after time, research has shown that Yes voters are more likely to turn out, while they are also more likely to have been involved closely with the referendum.

Three months out, some in Labour, though they will deny it, have begun to look forward to the political landscape that will exist if the independence referendum is beaten.

If it is, then Labour in Scotland – once dominant, now in sorry shape – fears voters will compensate the SNP for losing one cherished dream with an even bigger majority in Holyrood in 2016.

For now, both sides insist that they can win, that they will win; but the Church of Scotland is not alone in worrying about the divisions that are being created in society.

Three days after the referendum, it will hold a reconciliation service. Most Scots, however – regardless of opinions – do not want poison left behind, although they worry that it will be.

Mark Hennessy is London Editor

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