The Scottish independence campaign is losing ever more ground

One in four supporters have deserted the nationalist cause in 2012.

At last, they’re off. Last week’s "Edinburgh Agreement" ended nine months of argument between the Scottish and UK governments over how and when the independence referendum should take place, and signalled the start of a two-year campaign to determine Scotland’s constitutional future.

But where do the nationalist and unionist campaigns stand and what challenges lie ahead? Last week’s Ipsos MORI poll provides many of the answers.

The poll headline reveals that support for Scotland becoming independent continues to decline. In January 2012, almost four in ten of those of those who told us they would definitely vote in the ballot agreed that Scotland should be an independent country. Today, that figure stands at 30 per cent, meaning that one in four supporters have deserted the nationalist cause in 2012.

At least some of this change in public mood was predicted during a year in which a sense of ‘Britishness’ was celebrated with the Jubilee and the Olympics. And this week's so-called  ‘Scomni-shambles’, with two Scottish National Party MSPs resigning over the party’s new policy on NATO membership and the First Minister’s integrity being questioned over the legal advice sought about an independent Scotland’s future in the EU, won’t have helped the nationalist cause.

It is clear that it is the nationalists who face the stiffer challenge in winning the hearts and minds of Scottish voters. Firstly, there is the fact that only a quarter of women female voters (24 per cent) support independence, a full 13-points lower than support among men. The appointment of deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to run the ‘Yes’ campaign is clearly aimed at encouraging more women to change their minds, but the scale of the deficit makes this a huge task.

Then there is the economic argument. It is clear that voters have yet to be convinced that they will be better off if Scotland were to go it alone. Our January poll showed that this will be the most important issue in deciding the outcome of the referendum and that voters felt less secure about their finances when they considered what life would be like in an independent Scotland.  The current poll illustrates that it’s owner-occupiers (28 per cent), those with children (27 per cent) and those who live in the most affluent areas of Scotland (23 per cent) who are the most lukewarm about the prospect of independence.

These challenges are magnified by what is happening to support for the SNP and to voter satisfaction with the performance of the First Minister. In terms of voting intention for the Holyrood parliament, Labour has now closed the gap with the SNP from 25 points in December 2011 to just five points now. And while Alex Salmond continues to have personal ratings which all other leaders can only dream of (50 per cent are satisfied), these are also heading in the wrong direction, having been at 62 per cent just under a year ago.

The ‘No’ campaign has had an easier ride of late yet still faces its own challenges in persuading voters that Scotland is ‘better together.’ Their current healthy lead could be vulnerable if they are unable to outline and persuade voters of the additional powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the event of a ‘no’ vote. The majority of Scots want decisions about taxation, welfare and benefits to be made at Holyrood. However, with the option of further devolution not appearing on the ballot paper, it is up to the ‘No’ camp to outline a united, coherent vision or risk alienating voters who want further devolution but who currently want to remain in the UK.

Overall, those working for an independent Scotland face the bigger challenge in winning public support. Their hope is that 2012’s feeling of ‘Britishness’ will be replaced by ‘Scottishness’ in 2014 with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Bannockburn commemoration. The danger is that, by then, it may be too late.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP annual conference on October 20, 2012 in Perth, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mark Diffley is research director of Ipsos-MORI Scotland. He tweets as @markdiffley1.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.