With a year to go until the referendum, it’s safe to say most Scots remain disengaged from the debate about their constitutional future. And who could blame them? Neither the nationalists nor the unionists have produced a campaign capable of capturing the public’s attention.
The SNP, given the opportunity to permanently alter the terms and conditions of Scottish politics, has chosen instead to try and triangulate its way to victory. Its manoeuvres on NATO, the currency, the monarchy, the regulation of financial services and corporation tax reveal a party (or rather a party leadership) lacking in ideological ambition. How much of the UK’s dysfunctional political model do Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon want to impose on an independent Scotland?
When it launched last summer, Yes Scotland had the chance to build a grassroots movement based on the idea that far-reaching constitutional change was a necessary first step towards far-reaching social change. So far, however, it has simply followed the SNP’s lead. At its most radical, Yes Scotland sells independence as a way of mitigating the worst effects of the Westminster consensus, not of actually breaking with it.
The task of building an alternative vision of independence has fallen to smaller, left-leaning organisations such as the Jimmy Reid Foundation – with its hugely successful Common Weal initiative – the Radical Independence Convention and National Collective. Without these groups, the Yes campaign would lack vitality. Their contributions will be pivotal over the coming months.
Better Together, meanwhile, has done exactly what it set out to do – and with great efficiency. Furiously exaggerating the economic pitfalls of independence, undermining trust in the Scottish government, flooding the debate with distracting and trivial arguments – the No camp has adopted a scorched earth approach to the referendum, laying waste to everything in its path, including its own intellectual credibility.
Three scare stories in particular stand out. The first is the late Lord Carmyllie’s suggestion, back in March 2012, that England would be forced to bomb the airports of an independent Scotland if it ever came under attack. The second is the claim that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be guaranteed a triple-A credit rating – something Britain itself was stripped of in January. And the third (a hands-down winner) is the MoD’s warning that Faslane nuclear base might remain “sovereign UK territory” after independence.
During the early stages of the campaign, the relentless questioning of the SNP by Alistair Darling and others worked to expose the weakness of the nationalists’ case. Now it serves only to remind people of how empty the unionist one is. Better Together’s rampant, unsophisticated unionism needs to be balanced by a compelling account of how Scotland will benefit, socially and economically, from continued membership of the UK. It remains to be seen whether any such account exists.
The polls have been pretty consistent. According to the latest survey, the Yes campaign is trailing by 17 points and support for independence is struggling to edge above the 35 per cent mark. However, nationalists can take comfort from the fact that a large number of voters – as much as 45 per cent of the electorate, in fact – remain undecided. What’s more, the desire for a more powerful Scottish Parliament could translate into support for secession if the unionists fail to produce a coherent blueprint for the next phase of devolution.
We should, at any rate, expect the polls to narrow as the referendum approaches. The SNP is a formidable, well-resourced campaigning machine, while the energy and enthusiasm of the activists on the Yes side far outstrips that of their unionist counterparts. Moreover, it has happened before. Contrary to Nate Silver’s recent assertion, it was the Canadian federalists, not the Quebecois separatists, who squandered a double-digit advantage during the closing weeks of the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s independence from Canada. It’s not hard to imagine a similar scenario emerging in Scotland next year.
On the other hand, things could go badly wrong for the SNP if its White Paper, due out in November, doesn’t live up to the hype. Salmond has said he wants it to “resonate down through the ages”, so the pressure is on. Better Together is gearing up for a massive assault on the document, which it hopes will fatally undermine the nationalist campaign as it heads into 2014. The media’s response will be important. If journalists feel the White Paper has succeeded in answering some of the more problematic questions surrounding independence, people will think it has passed the test. If not, the SNP will find it difficult to recover.
The last 12 months have not been very edifying. The SNP and Yes Scotland have pursued their continuity narrative promising that a future independent Scotland will replicate the current unionist one in almost every way. Better Together and the pro-UK parties have pursued their wrecking ball strategy aimed at demolishing the idea that independence will be seamless and pain free. This time next year we’ll know which of the two campaigns Scots disliked the least.