Alex Salmond attends a media conference at the Commonwealth Games media centre on July 22, 2014 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Scottish Yes campaign is running out of time

With less than 50 days to go, the No side retains a double-digit lead. 

There are now less than 50 days to go until the Scottish independence referendum. The possibility that the country could vote to secede from the UK, after 307 years of union, makes the general election appear almost trivial by comparison. But the chance that it will do so is growing ever smaller.

As John Curtice's latest poll of polls for the Independent shows, the Yes campaign trails the No side by an average of 14 points (57-43). What should particularly alarm the nationalists is the stability of public opinion. Since March, both sides have been within one point of their current rating. With so little switching between the two camps, Alex Salmond is reliant on a large majority of "don't knows" breaking in his favour. But worryingly for him, it is support for the status quo that tends to increase in referendums as voting day approaches. 

Of the 70 polls published since February last year, just one has put the Yes campaign ahead (by a single point), and that was a biased survey commissioned by the SNP. The longer the No side's lead holds, the less chance there is of it being defeated. 

Many point to the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, when the SNP went from 20 points behind to 15 in front, as evidence that the nationalists could enjoy a late surge. But by this stage of that contest the party had dramatically narrowed Labour's lead to a few pointsIn the form of the SNP's 2007 victory there was also at least something close a precedent. By contrast, there has never been a majority for independence and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its prolonged aftermath has made voters even less willing to take that plunge into the dark. While conscious of avoiding the complacency that characterised Labour's 2011 campaign (described to me by one shadow cabinet minister as "loathsomely shit"), Better Together is rightly confident of victory. 

On Tuesday night, Salmond will debate Alistair Darling live on TV for the first time, a contest he badly needs to win. But such is the stubbornness of the No side's lead that this alone won't be enough. Rather, he needs a black swan event of the kind Darling spoke of in his interview with the New Statesman in June: "What worry you are the unknowns. Something could happen ...".

It still could, but Salmond's greatest opponent is now the clock. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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