With little over a month to go until the referendum, the No campaign is buoyant. Alex Salmond’s unexpectedly weak performance against Alistair Darling in the first televised debate has convinced unionists they are winning the argument as well as the vote. The polls are consolidating in favour of the Union. The currency issue is eating away at the SNP’s economic credibility. The Yes activists I speak to are uncharacteristically downbeat as they begin to accept, some of them for the first time in 24 months, that they might actually lose.
Amidst the gloom, nationalists are telling themselves comforting stories. One is that polling companies haven’t picked-up what’s happening "on the ground"; that the network of Yes groups in poor neighbourhoods will deliver a burst of working class enthusiasm strong enough to propel independence over the line on referendum day. Another is that the SNP has been in this situation before – three years ago, as the last Holyrood election approached – and will turn things around now as it did then.
We won’t find out how credible the first story is until the vote itself, but the second one just doesn’t stack-up. "The difference between 2011 and 2014", one senior Better Together figure told me recently, "is that in 2011 [Scottish Labour] knew the fundamentals, like leadership and the economy, weren’t on its side. This time we know they are." This is surely right. At the end of June, 49 per cent of Scots said independence would make them worse off, compared to just 27 per cent who said it would make them better off. It would be difficult for any party to win an election battling against these sorts of numbers, let alone a referendum on something as far-reaching as national sovereignty.
So where did it all go wrong for the Yes campaign, which only a few weeks ago was fizzing with confidence? The left claims Yes Scotland and the SNP have spent too much time trying to persuade voters that independence will be achieved seamlessly, with little or no disruption to Scotland’s economy or its institutions, when it should have been emphasising Scotland’s bleak prospects as part of an austerity-bound UK. Had the SNP made September 18 a referendum on the current state of Britain, rather than the future state of Scotland, Yes support would be higher than it is now, they argue.
It’s a legitimate point. The weakest feature of the SNP’s independence prospectus – its plan for a post-UK sterlingzone – is also the centrepiece of the party’s "continuity strategy" – the various triangulating gestures the SNP leadership has made over recent years to reassure undecided voters that radical constitutional change needn’t entail radical political change. But the public knows, intuitively, that this isn’t true. You can’t sell a grand political vision like self-determination with a series of (supposedly) pragmatic compromises. Why bother with all the upheaval – and, for some, the trauma – of creating a new state if it’s going to look just like the old one?
For me, the flawed logic behind the SNP’s currency policy became clear last November, at the launch of the White Paper in Glasgow. When asked why a new Anglo-Scottish monetary union would work better than the tanking eurozone, the first minster explained (correctly) that Scottish and English productivity rates are much more closely aligned than those of Germany and Greece. But for 40 years nationalists have argued that Westminster has limited Scotland’s economic potential and that independence will improve Scotland’s economic performance. Monetary union, anchored by a restrictive "fiscal stability pact", would lock the Scottish and English economies together, leaving Scotland’s economic autonomy severely curtailed. So, again, people are left asking: what, exactly, is the point?
But there are signs the tone of the SNP’s campaign is shifting. In the last few days the party has issued a stream of press releases warning of the "threat" a No vote poses to the NHS in Scotland. "While the SNP has protected Scotland’s NHS in government, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the NHS in England will be run by private companies by 2020", one of them reads. "Every £10 cut from NHS England through austerity, privatisation, or patient charges reduces our budget by £1 … [Labour has] to come clean on the huge impact that NHS privatisation in England will have on Scotland." At the same time, Nicola Sturgeon has been making high-profile visits to foodbanks and loudly attacking the coalition’s disability benefit reforms. Expect to see much more of the deputy first minister, the nationalists’ single greatest campaigning asset, in the five weeks that remain before 18 September.
However, if, as looks likely, the unionist lead holds, what would the impact of a No vote on the SNP and the broader Yes campaign be? The Better Together fantasy is that an exhausted Salmond resigns, while nationalism, lacking any clear or unifying purpose, collapses in on itself. This scenario isn’t totally implausible, but Salmond is only going to walk if it becomes politically impossible for him not to. Anything above 40 per cent of the vote will count as a respectable defeat for the SNP; anything above 45 per cent will count as a moral victory. And unionists should be careful not to underestimate the organisational resilience of the Yes groups, such as Radical Independence and National Collective, which have emerged since 2012. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the referendum debate has brought the Scottish left out of its ghetto. It won’t be going back again after 19 September. Nonetheless, in the short-term, a No vote would be profoundly demoralising for Yes activists. They have a lot of work to do, and very little time to do it in, if they are going to avoid the grinding sense of disappointment that comes with political failure.