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What keeps Alex Salmond awake at night?

A full war chest and a charismatic leader doesn't guarantee referendum success.

By Jon Bernstein

Asked by Shaun Ley on Radio 4’s The World at One, if he thought “devo max” — a souped up version of Scotland’s current form of autonomy — rather than all-out independence was a more likely outcome of a future referendum, Alex Salmond was characteristically defiant.

“No, I think we’ll win the independence referendum,” Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader said. And you would expect him to say little else. A seasoned politician, he knows the dangers of accepting the premise of a journalist’s question such as this. Moreover, independence has been always been the goal — and the dream.

But the runners-up prize — which would give Holyrood control over tax and spend but not foreign policy nor defence — may be as good as it gets for Salmond and his party. And even that is not a given.

There is little doubt that Salmond is a highly admired, and feared, political operator. As Jonathan Freedland points out in this morning’s Guardian, this is a man who is fêted even by his opponents. And it was the Times which earlier this week named him Briton of the Year. (Given Salmond’s separatist designs, the compliment was loaded, if not backhanded.)

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The same paper carried a two-page feature (£) today on the possibility of an independent Scotland. To quote the introduction:

A full war chest, a charismatic leader and superior tactics — can anything stop the SNP’s independence campaign?

Turning John Rentoul’s famed meme on its head, this is a question to which the answer is yes. The independence vote — tipped to take place in June 2014 to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn — may turn out to be a double defeat, and here’s why.

Firstly, Salmond’s popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to popularity for independence. As John Curtice, professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, notes in the Times article, those who jumped late on to the SNP bandwagon as last May’s Holyrood elections approached were far from ideological. Support for the SNP doesn’t always mean support for a clean break from the Union.

And after a post-election bounce, a familiar pattern to polling returned by late summer — namely, those in favour of independence fell below 40 per cent. A TNS poll for the Sunday Herald in September, for example, had those who would vote yes at 39 per cent compared to 38 per cent who would vote no. A lead for sure, but far from decisive.

“Devo max”, meanwhile, appears more popular, although don’t be fooled by what UK Polling Report’s Anthony Wells rightly describes as some “voodoo polling“.

But here’s the catch. The key gain from devolution max is fiscal autonomy but opinion polls are evenly divided between those who think the economy will perform better under Holyrood control, those that think it will make no difference, and those who think it will perform worse. As Curtice notes:

This is the most vital part of the argument that the SNP has still to win. Once you start trying to predict for and against independence, the economy is very important.

As a referendum gets closer, expect those fighting for the Union to exploit these doubts over the economy.

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