Many in the audience for a BBC Questions & Answers style debate in Inverness on Tuesday night were convinced: a new, gigantic reservoir of oil has been found in the North Sea.
The discovery is being kept secret, they argued, lest it convince wavering Scots that they can afford to be independent after the September 18th referendum.
The evidence? One independent oil company, Hurricane recently reported that a test well between the Shetland and Faroe Islands produce 9,800 barrels per day, well above expectations.
For many, however, the conclusive proof came with British prime minister David Cameron’s recent Shetland visit, the first by a No 10 occupant for more than 30 years. During the visit, Cameron met with some local politicians and oil people; encountered a few locals, but not too many and tweeted a photograph of himself with a Shetland pony. Nearly a billion barrels are already known to be held in the latest section of the Clair Ridge field to be explored off the Shetlands: BP is spending nearly £5 billion to get them out.
The conspiracy theory – which is not being voiced by leading Yes figures but is being fuelled by some lower down – has been dismissed as laughable and the last pitch of the desperate. Like all good conspiracy theories, however, it is surrounded by a line of truth: the scale of the North Sea’s riches was deliberately underplayed in the 1970s by London.
With little more than a month to go before voters decide on September 18th, the pro-independence Yes campaign needs a game changer if it is to regain momentum. Scottish National Party leader and first minister Alex Salmond has not recovered from last week's mauling by Labour's Alistair Darling about the currency an independent Scotland would use.
Support for independence is higher than two years ago, when it stood at 23 percentage points – though the 33 points found now by the Scottish Social Attitudes survey only mirrors the historical average since 1999.
Up to a third of voters are still wavering about their choice: a majority of those in the “don’t know” category instinctively want to vote Yes, but are frightened by an economic downside to independence.
Equally, however, they have been less enamoured of the idea that independence will make them more proud; give Scotland a stronger voice in the world, or that Scotland would be more fair. Despite all of the talk of deep public engagement in the campaign, two-thirds admit that they do not know much, or a lot about the issues facing them on September 18th. Two-thirds are “quite unsure”, or “very unsure” about what an independent Scotland will be like – a significant hurdle for the Yes campaign with time running out. Curiously, the evidence from the Social Attitudes survey – the most detailed of its type, and one that attracts widespread respect – is that Scots are answering a different question to the one that will face them. Instead of answering if they want Scotland “to be an independent country”, Scots instead seem to be debating “whether they want to leave the UK”. The distinction, for now, seems to be significant: more Scots are conscious of their British identity than were two years ago, for instance; while fewer have gripes about English power.
Equally, the survey shows that Scots, when they are asked for their thoughts on options short of independence, want more direct control over their own affairs – to set tax rates, for example, or benefits. Curiously, they are less keen on the idea that those rates should differ, creating the apparently paradoxical thoughts that Scots want the freedom to be the same. Even if the Yes side has had a poor week, the battle continues, since over 80 per cent of those who declare as “don’t knows” insist that they will vote.
One-in-eight of those polled, no matter how much they are prodded to declare a preference for either side, say they “genuinely have no idea” of their final choice, says Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh. The majority of those are people who voted Labour or the Liberal Democrats in the past: “They are sympathetic to the idea of independence, but they need to be convinced about the economy,” he says.
Equally, the Yes campaign must do something to turn around the gender gap: men since 1999 when the Scottish parliament returned been more likely than women to favour independence.
However, the average gap found by Social Attitudes used to be six percentage points. Today, it is 12 points: just 27 per cent of women polled say they will vote Yes compared with 39 per cent of men.
Here again, the numbers suggest that uncertainty about Scotland’s economic future is weighing heavily with women, who are traditionally more risk-averse.
For some in Scotland, the explanation is obvious: women find Alex Salmond too confrontational and boorish. That might explain some of the numbers but it does not explain everything. Mark Hennessy is London Editor