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1 August 2014

The Scottish Yes campaign is running out of time

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

By George Eaton

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 …”.

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