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.

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.

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

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle