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The odds are still against Scottish independence, but every vote will count

The closer the contest is, the more likely radical changes to the devolution settlement become.

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond launches a paper on the Scottish economy on May 21, 2013 in Falkirk. Photograph: Getty Images.

Polls of the Scottish electorate currently show a healthy lead for those arguing against independence. But even if public opinion doesn’t shift significantly in the months ahead, every vote will be crucial in determining Scotland’s constitutional future after the referendum.

With Holyrood about to go into recess, it’s clear that if the referendum were held tomorrow there would likely be a clear victory for those arguing for Scotland to remain in the UK. Once we get back from the summer break, there will be a year left for both sides to make their case.

For those of us keenly watching every detail of the debate, it was surprising to read the First Minister’s interview in last week’s New Statesman in which he declared: "This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign." To some extent, he’s right, and all sides expect some movement in public opinion in the months ahead.

Salmond’s optimism is born out of a number of factors. He believes that on-going austerity measures, particularly cuts in welfare spending, will push voters towards voting 'Yes'. He will also have an eye on the outlook for the 2015 general election and hope that next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow may engender feelings of Scottish nationalism in the same way that last year’s Olympics enhanced pride in ‘Britishness’ among many voters.

The main reason to suggest some shifts in opinion though is what our polls highlight about the number of people who are still to make up their minds. 'Undecided' voters come in three categories: those who tell us they may not vote if there were a referendum tomorrow (25 per cent of adults in our latest poll from May, including 2 per cent who tell us they definitely will not vote), those who would vote but are undecided (7 per cent) and those who lean towards one side but tell us they may change their minds before polling day (12 per cent). Taken together, this represents over four in ten Scots whose vote remains up for grabs and who will become an increasingly important group as the referendum comes into clear view.

This said, at present the odds remain firmly stacked in favour of the No campaign. This is because, although there are significant numbers of undecided and uncommitted voters, there is nothing in our polling to suggest that they are currently leaning towards voting Yes in sufficient numbers to make a decisive difference to the overall result.

In fact, analysis of these groups provides more comfort to those in the No camp. Among those who tells us they are uncertain to vote in the referendum, one in five, 20 per cent, would vote Yes while half, 49 per cent, would vote No, suggesting that a campaign to encourage participation is more likely to be beneficial those in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. Those who tell us that they are undecided or may change their minds are more evenly split, with 38 per cent leaning towards Yes and 43 per cent towards No. The remainder cannot be even gently swayed either way at the moment.

So, assuming undecided voters do not begin switching to Yes in significant numbers in the coming months, the debate may begin to switch from who will win the referendum to the margin of victory and what that means for Scotland’s constitutional future.

Our polling suggests that a majority of Scots want some form of constitutional change. For instance, our June 2012 survey showed 29 per cent in support of the status quo, while more than two-thirds of voters (68 per cent) supported either full independence (27 per cent) or the 'Devo-Plus' proposals for greater powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

We do not yet know what will happen to Scotland’s constitutional position in the event of a No vote next year. But it is possible that more radical and significant changes become more likely in a closely contested vote. That’s why every vote will be significant and strongly fought for in the run up to the referendum.