Salmond confident in battle for independent Scotland
OPINION:SUPPORTERS OF major constitutional change usually need to be well ahead in the opinion polls in the early stages, accepting that a referendum race will tighten in the closing weeks.
In Scotland, however, the situation is different. The Scottish National Party wants Scots to back independence in the October 2014 referendum, yet all the polls indicate that a majority currently opposes it.
Scottish first minister Alex Salmond remains confident, however. So, too, is his party’s rank and file, following the SNP’s annual conference in Perth over the weekend.
Ever inventive, Salmond downplayed the significance of the changes that would follow a Yes vote, speaking of home rule as often as he uttered the word “independence”. Sterling would be kept. So, too, would the crown. Secondly, he argued that greater risks lay ahead if Scots voted No, particularly to the universal benefits – such as free prescriptions, free tuition fees, etc – that mark Scotland out now from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Last week, Salmond and British prime minister David Cameron agreed terms for the referendum: a question to be answered with a straight Yes or No; and a vote to be held by the end of 2014, with 16- and 17-year-olds eligible to vote.
In London, Cameron’s supporters credit him with a triumph: Salmond had wanted a third question, offering greater self- government short of independence, but had been rebuffed.
North of the border, the view is different. The wily Salmond, in their eyes, had never wanted a third question: his principal ambition, conceded by London, was the long, drawn-out campaign. Despite his denials, Salmond had wanted a third question, though that is not to say a straight choice on independence does not offer him the opportunity to force doubters on to his side.
Scots want greater self-rule, while promises that they will get such freedom if they vote No to independence – something already being spoken about in London – will be hard to sell.
The Scots have heard this before. In 1979, former British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home offered such carrots, though the Scottish people had to wait for 20 years and the arrival of Tony Blair as prime minister before the devolution process began.
In the SNP’s playbook, the Conservative- Liberal Democrats coalition in London will by 2014 have become even more unpopular than it currently is, on the back of spending cuts.
Welfare changes dictated under current rules by London, not the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, will begin to bite from next spring.
Meanwhile, Scots bridle at the charge that they are living on subvention from London.
Repeatedly over the weekend SNP politicians declared that Scotland provides 9.7 per cent of all of the UK’s tax revenue – including oil receipts – yet receives 9.3 per cent of the spending.
In addition, the increasingly strident calls in England for a referendum on European Union membership, or even withdrawal, are unpopular in Scotland and could impact upon voting intentions.
The agreement on the referendum’s legal foundation between Salmond and Cameron just days before the SNP gathered in Perth was a major boon for the first minister.
On Friday, his delegates – following an extraordinary debate reminiscent of party conferences of decades past – dropped the SNP’s opposition to Nato membership for Scotland.
However, the vote was tight and could have been lost had Salmond not arrived in Perth with the referendum agreement still warm in his hand.
The reasons for abandoning a long-held policy were entirely pragmatic, if not cynical: Scots, it is argued, are fearful of too much change, so much must be done to soothe fears before 2014 comes around.
An independent Scotland would join Nato, Salmond said, but only if the UK’s submarine- carried nuclear deterrent Trident based at Faslane on the Clyde is removed.
Senior SNP figures, such as Angus Robertson, are vague about when the Trident vessels “would have to sail down the Clyde”, leaving open the possibility that they could remain for years to come.
The model, perhaps, is the Irish “treaty ports” agreement reached between the UK and the Free State – which gave London control of Berehaven, Spike Island and Lough Swilly until 1938.
The removal of Trident from Scottish waters will be difficult to achieve: the transfer would cost billions, while the construction of a new base south of the border would be fiercely opposed.
For some, the narrowly backed Nato vote proves the SNP is split. In reality, the issues that divide are less significant than the cause that unites: independence.
“We are focused on our north star,” said one delegate.
By 2014, the SNP – blessed with a ground operation unmatched by other political parties – will make the case in every parish and community.
And while it will be an SNP-dominated campaign, it will not be just an SNP platform – if only because that would turn off middle- ground voters, even those who believe the SNP has delivered competent government.
On Saturday, the head of the campaign for a Yes vote, Blair Jenkins – who has never been a member of any party – offered instructions: “There’ll be Tories in this campaign, Labour people. Make them welcome.”
Ten thousand “ambassadors” will be trained to spread the message, while the SNP has studied US presidential campaigns for lessons that can be brought back.
Declarations from politicians have an impact, but, more importantly, voting choices are dictated, or influenced, by what people hear from people they know and trust. “Persuade just one other person,” Jenkins said.
The SNP’s opponents are disparate and divided. Labour has its own reasons for wanting a No vote, since Scottish independence would deprive it of the chance of a House of Commons majority in London. Scottish Labour has given a hostage to fortune by warning that universal benefits cannot be afforded indefinitely.
The Conservatives are a spent force, while the Liberal Democrats are on the retreat.
Two years, however, is a long time. If the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition will be more unpopular by then, so, too, could Salmond, who will have been in office for seven years by then.
Given the opinion polls, it would be easy to write off the SNP’s chances. Such a view would be a mistake. Scotland is already a different country. There is a battle to be fought.