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.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.