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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change