Salmond's only hope of victory is a Tory recovery

To triumph against the odds, the Yes campaign needs fear of a Conservative government and permanent austerity to push voters towards independence.

After trailing in the polls by a double-digit margin for most of the last year, Yes Scotland is hoping that the launch of today's independence White Paper marks the beginning of a remarkable comeback. Alex Salmond has long spoken of the possibility of a revival similar to that enjoyed by the SNP against Labour in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. He told the NS back in June, "This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign. I went into an election [for the Scottish Parliament] in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground." 

Only the foolhardy would write off a campaigner as formidable as Salmond, but the odds are overwhelmingly against him. There has never been a majority for independence in Scotland (around 20 per cent of SNP voters support the Union) and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its aftermath has made voters even more reluctant to take that leap into the dark. The SNP's refusal to publish the legal advice on whether Scotland would inherit Britain’s membership of the EU and the uncertainty over its preferred option of a currency union with the rest of the UK (Unionist figures privately suggest that they may pledge to stage a referendum on the issue and Wales has already vowed to veto it) have also damaged its cause. After pledging to preserve so many of the features of the British state - the monarchy, the pound, Nato membership - independence looks increasingly like a solution in search of a problem. 

The great irony of today's launch is that the headline announcement was on childcare (the SNP pledged to ensure that, over time, "every child from age one to starting school is guaranteed 30 hours of provision for 38 weeks of the year"), an area already devolved to Holyrood (Nicola Sturgeon responded by saying that she didn't want the additional tax revenue raised by parents returning to work to accrue to Westminster). Salmond repeated his promise to abolish the bedroom tax, the issue that he has predicted "might well have the same galvanising effect as the poll tax". But Ed Miliband's unambiguous pledge to do the same means this is less likely to prove the elixir he needs.

The increasing probability of a Labour victory in 2015 has helped to further tilt the odds against independence. One of the arguments Salmond made for secession was the risk that the UK could leave the EU. Earlier this year he gleefully cited a poll showing that the No campaign's lead evaporates when the Scottish public are asked how they would vote if Britain looked set to leave. But the diminishing likelihood of a Tory victory, and of an in/out referendum in 2017 (Labour has still not, and may not, promise a public vote), means it will be harder for him to warn that we're heading for Brexit. 

With just one Conservative MP in Scotland (compared to 41 for Labour), the fear of another five years under the Tory yoke, and a government wedded to permanent austerity, could help to push many towards independence. But if Labour is still comfortably ahead in the polls in September 2014, far fewer will fear what lies ahead. For this reason, a Tory recovery is perhaps the essential precondition of  a Salmond victory. 

Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon present the White Paper for Scottish independance at the Science Museum Glasgow earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.