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As the campaign for Scottish independence launches, Peter Kellner considers polling precedent to predict what SNP leader and first minister Salmond should aim for if he wants a 'yes' vote

Last Friday, during his media blitz to launch the ‘yes’ campaign for Scottish independence, SNP leader and first minister Alex Salmond was asked about YouGov’s poll for the ‘no’ campaign ‒ which showed what every poll for some years has shown: a clear majority opposed to independence. Salmond did not challenge the poll’s accuracy. His response was that he preferred to enter campaigns as the underdog.

He was right to acknowledge that he has a tough time ahead. We found that just 33% wanted Scotland to become independent, while 57% wanted it to stay part of the UK. This is in line with past polls by YouGov and other companies.

In fact, the mountain Salmond must climb is even higher than those figures suggest.

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In the first devolution referendum in 1979, ‘yes’ supporters outnumbered their opponents by around three-to-two with just a fortnight to go. Then a number of voters who had fancied the general idea of devolution got cold feet as decision-day approached. In the event, the result was virtually a dead heat. 33% of the electorate voted ‘yes’, 31% voted ‘no’ and 36% did not vote. As the law in that referendum required a ‘yes’ vote of at least 40% of the whole electorate, devolution did not happen.

As I discussed in my blog last week, a swing back to the status quo is not uncommon: it happened in both of the UK-wide referendums, on Europe in 1975 and electoral reform last year. So, to have a good chance of winning a referendum on independence in 2014, I reckon Salmond should be aiming for the ‘yes’ lead, as recorded by polls in the weeks leading up to the campaign, to be approaching two-to-one.

What must he do to achieve this? Here are three options.

  1. He could try to repeat what he did in the 1990s to secure a big ‘yes’ win in the second devolution referendum, in 1997. Then, he spent years working with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the churches, trade unions and Scotland’s business community to build a consensus within civil society, not just for the principle of devolution but for a precise package of powers and institutions.

    Of the significant players, only the Conservatives stood outside the consensus. And by then they were so discredited that their opposition was more of a benefit than a hindrance to the devolution cause.

    As a result, the referendum was not so much a contest between rival visions of Scotland’s future as a formal ratification of a done deal. The ‘yes’ vote stayed solid throughout the campaign.

    However, no such consensus seems likely over independence. All three main UK-wide parties oppose it; and in our latest poll, their combined support in Scotland outguns SNP support by 59-35% in Westminster voting intention, and by 51-43% in Holyrood voting intentions.

    Nor is there overwhelming support for independence among the churches, unions or business. Salmond’s only political allies seem to be two minority parties: the Greens and Scottish Socialists. Unless something extraordinary happens over the next two years, the referendum campaign will divide more than it unifies.

    These are conditions in which a late swing back to the status quo is certainly possible and arguably probable.

  2. He could spend the next two years negotiating with the British Government to create the conditions in which independence seems the safe, natural choice, because it becomes clear that London will co-operate with Edinburgh in creating the conditions which Scotland will prosper after leaving the UK.

    Indirect evidence that this could attract some doubters was provided by a TNS-BMRB poll last August. This asked whether Scots wanted the Scottish Government to ‘negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state’. By 39-38%, Scots supported this plan.

    At the time, some media accounts reported this as a sharp swing in favour of independence. Not so. The TNS-BMRB wording differed from that used by other companies, because it included the phrase ‘negotiate a settlement’. The question thus combined two propositions: a benign-sounding process (negotiation) with a controversial outcome (independence). It was therefore not strictly comparable with other polling companies that ask specifically about independence.

    However, the responses to the TNS-BMRB question could be interpreted as demonstrating some capacity for Salmond to increase ‘yes’ support, by being seen to win co-operation from David Cameron in the build-up to the referendum.

    A variant of option 2 would be for Scottish voters to flock to Salmond’s banner, were Cameron to fight so ham-fistedly to keep the union that Scots choose independence as an act of national defiance against London. But if Cameron avoids both pitfalls, this well of potential ‘yes’ votes could run dry.

  3. This is the big one. Salmond could win the argument that independence would make the Scots better off.

    Currently his biggest problem is that not enough of his compatriots believe this. In YouGov’s latest poll, we asked: ‘Do you think Scotland would be financially better off or worse off if Scotland became independent from the rest of the UK?’

    27% said better off, while 47% said worse off. The remaining 26% didn’t take sides – they divided equally between ‘it would make no difference’ and ‘don’t know’.

    There is and almost total correlation between answers to this question and attitudes to independence. Of our sample of 1,004, just ten respondents gave either independence-but-poorer, or richer-but-unionist answers to these two questions. And of those who don’t take sides, a slight majority opposes independence.

So the issue comes down to this. Can Salmond convince his fellow Scots that they would flourish if they were independent? He tried to make this case a few years ago with his ambition to join an ‘arc of prosperity’. However, his arc included pre-crisis Iceland and Ireland. As we political scientists say, 'oops'.

Maybe Salmond can come up with a new argument. He is certainly Scotland’s, and possibly Britain’s, most persuasive politician. Political gamblers have lost plenty of money betting against him. If anyone is able to climb the mountain and deliver a ‘yes’ majority, it is he.

However, I reckon the odds are against him.

The arguments that will be deployed against him will seek to frighten Scottish voters with all kinds of dangers: that investors will withdraw from Scotland; that the country will suffer from the loss of the subsidy it currently receives from England (because Scotland receives from London more in grants than it pays in taxes); that if Scotland keeps the pound, as Salmond wants, London will force austerity measures on Edinburgh; that the cost of administering a completely independent country, including its own armed forces, foreign embassies and completely separate civil service, will gobble up too much money; that an independent Scotland will have to spend at least a decade, and possibly longer, cast adrift from the European Union; that Scottish viewers will lose access to BBC programmes (or be forced to pay extra for them); and so on.

It’s not that all, or indeed any, of these things will come to pass: it is that the FEAR of them could be quite enough to scupper Salmond’s hopes. Unless he can dispel these fears, he is heading for defeat.

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