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.

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.