A majority of people back Scottish independence, says poll

Alex Salmond says that David Cameron's "dictatorial" intervention has increased support for independ

A referendum on Scottish independence, currently scheduled for autumn 2014, may still be a way off, but public opinion is moving in the right direction for the SNP if a Sunday Express poll is to be believed. It found that 51 per cent of people in Scotland back independence. This follows a New Statesman poll earlier this week which found 44 per cent of the Scottish public in favour.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, Salmond had his own theory on why this could be:

I think that some of that increase in support for independence is a reaction against the sort of dictatorial line we've been getting from some of the pronouncements from Downing Street.

I think the prime minister would do well to perhaps listen to the voice of the people and try to conduct this debate with a bit more positivity.

However, this might not be the only reason. Notably, the poll used Salmond's preferred referendum question -- "Do you support Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?" -- which has come under fire for being loaded, as the phrasing is designed to invite a positive answer. (Political Scrapbook pointed out this week that schoolchildren are taught that these types of questions are wrong).

Interestingly, although Salmond criticised Westminster, he also appeared to suggest that Scotland would remain part of the UK, even if people vote for independence:

The Queen will still be our head of state ... I don't think it would be a good idea to talk about United Kingdoms when what we're actually talking about is political independence for Scotland.

He also renewed calls for a third option of devo-max to be added to the ballot paper. Cameron has indicated that devo-max, which involves greater economic rather than political freedom, would be inconsistent with remaining in the UK.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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