SNP is behind in voter intentions but complacency could yet undo union

Opinion: Women are the most opposed of any category to Scottish independence

Nicola Sturgeon (centre) walks past a man draped in a Union flag outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon (centre) walks past a man draped in a Union flag outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Nov 27, 2013, 00:01

Little things tell a lot. Alex Salmond yesterday came to Glasgow to launch the Scottish government’s white paper on independence. And he quickly spoke about women.

The Scottish first minister, along with his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, believes voters facing next September’s referendum are getting more information than any people ever had before.

Both the location and the choice of the opening subject were revealing about the Scottish National Party’s campaign and about the weaknesses they believe they need to overcome.

Glasgow is not a Scottish National Party heartland; but it is there, and in other parts of the west of Scotland, that the independence battle will be decided.

The districts around Glasgow’s Science Museum in Govan – some of the city’s most deprived – and others like them must be marshalled behind the “Yes Scotland” campaign if independence is to happen.

Meanwhile, both Salmond and Sturgeon sought to woo the women’s vote by offering “transformational” changes to childcare: free for all one year olds and 30 hours a week of it for three and four year olds.

The emphasis was not accidental, even if seen as tactical rather than strategic.

A majority of Scots, for now, oppose independence, or are warily undecided, but women are the most dubious of all.

Change on such a scale could not be contemplated now since the policy’s benefits – more tax from working women – would go to London, not to Edinburgh, but the costs would be Edinburgh’s to meet.

Even if the polls are currently less than favourable for Salmond, the September 2014 battle – an 80-year-old dream for the SNP – is far from won or lost.

Liberal Democrat Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael, newly in office but already vigorous, last week warned the cabinet in London that complacency could yet undo the union.

Salmond has produced a 650-page document to answer Scots’ questions, covering everything from the currency that would be used by a free Scotland to the military alliances it would join, and much more.

All change vs no change
However, it faces a conundrum, having to argue that independence would change everything and – to soothe those fearful of the risks that it would bring – change little.

Everywhere, as one questioner pointed out, it uses the word “will” – even though so much will depend on negotiations that would follow a Yes vote for independence. The British government has said Scotland’s use of sterling would be “highly unlikely” – a view shared strongly by the Welsh government in Cardiff.

And, critics argue, if sterling is used then what kind of independence will it be? The euro has shown, says Labour’s Alistair Darling, that political union follows currency union.

“So you are back where you started. What is the point of that?” said the former chancellor of the exchequer, who is leading the pro-union “Better Together’ campaign.

Sterling is not what the SNP once wanted. In the days before the global crash, it enthusiastically backed euro membership. Today, it equally states categorically that Scotland could not be forced to join it.

The question is central to the debate in Scotland, where a resigned, often irritated populace – irritated by both sides, frankly – has concentrated on independence’s economics, rather than its soul.

Taxes would rise in an independent Scotland, both the treasury in London and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have warned in recent days and weeks.

However, the Scottish government insists that pensions would be safeguarded, while the minimum wage, tax allowances and tax credits would rise in line with inflation.

“There will be no requirement for an independent Scotland to raise the general rate of taxation to fund existing levels of spending,” it declares confidently.

The sheer level of detail, however, creates a suspicion that Salmond has produced not an independence white paper but a manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections in a Scotland that is still part of the union.

The predictions of naysayers about Scotland’s future are based, Salmond argues, upon both desultory growth figures and pessimistic opinions on how long North Sea oil and gas will last.

Meanwhile, questioned about Scotland’s membership of the European Union, Salmond says it will stay in it, having only to nail down updated terms. Others put it on the outside, seeking to join.

Then, there is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Salmond wants rid of the Trident missile base in Faslane by 2021 (a later date than mentioned up to now), but wants to be part of the Nato club.

Undoubtedly, Salmond is most likely right when he states that the EU and Nato would want an independent Scotland involved.

Equally, however, others will seek to secure a pound of flesh.

The Spaniards do not want an independent Scotland, fearful of the impact it could have on opinion in the Basque Country and, most acutely, in Catalonia.

Independence contagion
The Italians are chary about the impact it could have on opinions in northern Italy. Others elsewhere are fearful about the “piece of thread” effect it could have for them.

Once upon a time, Catalonian journalists travelling to Edinburgh enjoyed open access to Scottish National Party figures, happy to extol the virtues of independence.

Intriguingly, today, such invitations are rarer. The Scottish government has acted not to upset Madrid since it may one day have to negotiate with it.

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