The Scottish referendum – don’t write off a yes vote
There are three golden rules: It’s not over till it’s over; never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never, ever, write off Alex Salmond. At some point in the next five years – probably in 2014 or 2015, Scotland will vote on its constitutional future. As an exile in England, I am often asked what my country will conclude. And the simple answer is that it isn’t simple.
On the one hand, most (but not all) recent polls have had the unionists ahead. The SNP victory in May had little to do with increased support for statehood. But the significant difference in results from survey to survey surely shows one thing: most people haven’t made up their mind. If people know their opinion when the pollsters phone, then they will give the same answer however the question is put. But if this isn’t a matter they’ve pre-pondered, if it’s not something they’ve chewed over at tea time, then they will give whatever thought occurs at that moment. Most people don’t have opinions on most matters until they are asked. And most people seem not to have made up their minds on the coming referendum.
And so everything is open. And, perhaps it is more open than we realise. Because it is important to remember the context of these polls. We have now had four Holyrood elections. In each one, Labour has used its voice to attack the idea of independence. Rather than go for the SNP, they have shrieked that a vote for the Scottish Nationalists is a vote for divorce – for expulsion from the EU, for passports on the trip to visit your Geordie Granny, for a dangerous constitutional experiment, or whatever other fear-mongering is in vogue. Labour have worked hard to make each election a referendum on independence, and they have passionately explained the case for a ‘No’ vote.
Rather than respond to these attacks – rather than allow elections to become about the constitution, the SNP have replied by booting the issue to the long grass – a future referendum. And they have talked instead about abolishing tuition fees and opposing trident, cutting tax for corporations and building roads, investing in green jobs and abolishing council tax. And so, as Peter McColl as pointed out, they have never really used their air time to make the case for independence. They have never had their say in the conversation about the constitution. For more than a decade, they haven’t taken the time to persuade anyone to support the cause. And now, they have three or four years – a long time – to present their arguments, and to frame the debate. Like the march to Mongolia, this is going to be a long campaign.
In January 2011, the SNP polled at 33%. Labour got 49%. By May, Alex Salmond won with a record majority. In part, the early polls were dodgy – a hangover from the Westminster election the previous year. But this shift is a testimony to the fact that the SNP are Britain’s best electoral machine.
Their tartan army has a ground game that is matched by no one. Anywhere in Scotland, in any elections, there is a simple way to find out what’s going to happen – ask the local SNP activists. Their canvassing samples are impeccable, their data a delight. If an electioneer marches on her canvass returns, then the SNP’s return to government should have come as no surprise.
But of course, elections aren’t just ground campaigns, and the referendum will be about much more than knocking on doors. The framing of issues will matter, the use of both conventional and social media, fundraising and, significantly, the leadership making sure that all of these dominoes are lined up and being the faces persuading the people. And whilst the Yes campaign must be about much more than the Scottish Nationalists, it will surely be led by The Maximum Eck. And agree with him or not, Alec Salmond is probably the best electioneer in the UK. The relentless hope, the endless ability to inspire confidence whilst sharing a joke, the fearsome strategy, and the decades in the political trenches mean that beating him is no easy feat. At his side, Nicola Sturgeon – again, one of the heavyweights of British politics – compare her Newsnight performances to those of Osborne or Gove and you begin to get an idea of what she’s capable of. Again, a fearsome campaigner. And who will be leading the charge against this pair?
The figurehead of the no campaign is less clear. Perhaps it will be whichever leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament replaces the soon-to-be-eaten-alive minnow selected in the current process? Need I say more? Maybe it will be the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary. OK, stop laughing. So, that leaves the man who has already pledged to fight this: the Prime Minister. In his mind he is, with all the gravitas of his office, going to ride North and sway the rebellious Scots. In my mind, I have the image conjured by my fellow Bright Green editor Gary Dunion: for the people, politicians and press in Scotland it will be like bullying the supply teacher. The Tories are already as unpopular in Scotland as they ever were – so much so that the Scottish Conservatives are seriously considering a split. Cameron never got the bounce he did in England when he was first chosen to lead his party: Scots weren’t conned by this smug Southerner. And by the time of the referendum, he and his party – with their sole Scottish MP – will have forced through massive cuts and delivered spiralling unemployment. In this tough terrane, the man who couldn’t even properly beat Gordon Brown will surely stumble.
Perhaps more likely, the opposition will be divided – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, independent bids to ‘save the union’, no clear message, no narrative, constant squabbling: a recipe for snatching defeat from Salmond’s jowley jaws.
Let me be clear. I am not making a prediction. The Scottish press is surprisingly UK nationalist. UK nationalist parties still have the vast majority of Scots MPs. Most polls show a significant hill to climb: those of us who support independence are certainly behind. But the referendum campaign is already getting going. Mr Cameron faces a long, long march. Over the next three long years at least he will be battling one of the masters of politics in these islands, who will be standing on his own turf and leading the fight of his life, the battle he’s dreamt of every night. It’s not over till it’s over. Never get involved in a land war in Asia, Mr Cameron. And never, ever write off Alec Salmond.