According to today’s Sunday Times, senior Tories are increasingly fearful that Scotland will vote for independence next year. Lynton Crosby is said to believe that “Salmond will pull it off”, while former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth declares: “It’s time England woke up and that we, as partners in the United Kingdom, work out how we’re going to move forward and ensure that a reckless decision to break up the United Kingdom is not made in September.”
Their views reflect those of many commentators, who are now describing the result as “too close to call”. But while a tight race would undoubtedly be more exciting (the primary concern of most newspapermen), the suggestion that the Union is in peril is unsupported by the best guide we have to how people will vote (which is not Lynton Crosby’s hunches): the polls.
Before the publication of the White Paper on independence, I heard plenty of nationalists suggest that the event would be a “gamechanger” for the Yes campaign. But every poll published since has shown the No side ahead by between 14 and 29 points, with no significant increase in support for separation. The Union side, as it has done the last two years, retains a healthy double-digit lead. While some of the pollsters might be wrong some of the time, all of the pollsters can’t be wrong all of the time. So why the anxiety?
Those who believe that the Scots are likely to vote for independence typically point to the large number of undecided voters, with around a quarter yet to say how they will vote. But if the Yes side is to take the lead, they’ll need to win over almost all of this group. Indeed, according to the most recent YouGov poll, which put the No side ahead by 52-33, even winning over 100 per cent would still leave the nationalists four points behind. Why assume that the Yes campaign will prove so successful at converting them?
Others, pointing to the SNP’s remarkable victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, remind us that Salmond is a “great finisher” who specialises in defying the odds. The man himself told NS editor Jason Cowley back in June, “This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign. I went into an election [for the Scottish Parliament] in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground.” But in the form of the SNP’s 2007 victory, there was at least something close to a precedent for this. By contrast, there has never been a consistent majority for independence and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its aftermath has made voters even more reluctant to take a leap into the dark.
There have been polls showing that Scots would vote for independence if they believed it would make them better off, but the problem for Salmond is that they don’t. Asked earlier this month by YouGov, “Do you think Scotland would be economically better or worse off if it became an independent country, or would it make no difference?” (the defining issue of the campaign), just 26 per cent said “better off” and 48 per cent said “worse off”. If Salmond couldn’t persuade voters that Scotland would be better off alone when the UK was in an austerity-induced double-dip recession, he’s not going to be able to persuade them now.
The sceptics on the Union side finally point out that referendums are uncertain beasts. But while true, this ignores the tendency for support for the status quo to increase as voting day approaches (recall the 1975 EU referendum and that on the Alternative Vote in 2011, as well as the Quebec plebiscite). Faced with the real possibility of secession, I expect a significant minority of Yes supporters to pull back from the brink.
When I put all of these points to nationalists, I’m told that studying the polls is no substitute for gauging “feeling on the ground”. But this is merely the age-old cry of the losing side; Romney supporters said much the same in 2012. When Nate Silver, who has rightly argued that the Yes campaign has “virtually no chance” of victory, pointed out that almost all of the polls suggested a comfortable win for Obama, he was dismissed by conservative pundits who insisted (typically on the basis of little more than their personal hunches) that the race was “too close to call”. They were left looking rather foolish after 6 November 2012, and so will those now suggesting that Scotland is about to go it alone.