Alex Salmond's big problem: Scots don't believe they would be richer under independence

A majority would vote for independence if they believed they would be £500 better off, but just 9 per cent of voters think they would be personally wealthier.

It is self-interest, not sentimentality, that will determine whether Scotland votes for independence in September. The annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows that 52 per cent would support independence if they believed they would be £500 a year better off (although this is down from 64 per cent in 2011), compared to just 30 per cent who would oppose it. But were they to be £500 a year worse off, only 15 per cent would vote for secession, compared to 72 per cent who would vote against it. 

The conclusion is clear: if Scots believe that they will be richer under independence, they will not hesitate to break up the Union. The problem for Alex Salmond is that they don't. Just 9 per cent believe that they would be personally better off under independence, while more than three times as many (29 per cent) believe that they would be worse off.

It is the SNP's misfortune to be campaigning for independence at a time of falling living standards. The only time the polls showed a plurality for separation was in 1998, shortly after the devolution referendum and during the long economic boom. Were we living in less straitened times, voters might be more willing to take a leap into the dark. But if Salmond can't persuade voters that they'd be richer under independence, can he persuade them that they'd be more equal? Not at the moment. Only 16 per cent believe that the gap between the rich and the poor would be smaller as a result of secession.

Consequently, while support for independence has risen from the joint low of 23 per cent recorded last year, it still stands at just 29 per cent (three points below the level found in 2011). Around a third of voters remain undecided but, as I've written before, there is no reason to believe that they will break for the Yes side in the numbers required for victory. 

The sceptics on the Union side and the optimists on the nationalist side remind us that referendums are uncertain beasts. But while true, this ignores the tendency for support for the status quo to increase as voting day approaches (as in the case of the 1975 EU referendum, the 2011 AV referendum and the 1980 Quebec referendum). Faced with the real possibility of secession, I expect a significant minority of Yes supporters to pull back from the brink.

The SNP is keen to point out that the survey was carried out between June and October last year, before the publication of the independence white paper in November, but with more recent polls showing no increase in support for independence, it is doubtful this would have made much difference. 

For now, Ed Miliband, who would struggle to govern if Labour was stripped of its Scottish MPs, and David Cameron, who would become known as the prime minister who lost the Union, have no reason to lose any sleep over the outcome on 18 September. 

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon present the White Paper for Scottish independance at the Science Museum Glasgow on November 26, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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