Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said.
With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy. One poll at the beginning of September gave the No side a 30 per cent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a Yes vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.
One reason for the variation in the polls may be that for most Scots it isn’t a straightforward question of in or out. The week before Silver’s appearance in Edinburgh a Panelbase poll commissioned by the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland found a 2 per cent lead for the No side. More interestingly, it also found a significant hunger for further devolution – and scepticism of unionists’ vague promises of more powers for Holyrood. Sixty per cent of respondents said that welfare benefits should come under the Scottish Parliament’s purview, and more than half said that oil revenues and taxation should be controlled from Holyrood. But few thought any of these powers would be devolved in the event of a No vote in 2014.
The Wings Over Scotland poll received little media attention. (There was a fluff piece in the Scottish Daily Mail about Scots being more scared of a Tory government than space monsters.) More powers for Holyrood – the so-called ‘devo-max’ option that most Scots would prefer to either independence or the status quo – is a conversation few in Scottish politics want to have. Yes Scotland is wary of appearing as defeatist twelve months before a referendum that many have waited a lifetime for; the Better Together campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of unionist opinion, some of it opposed to any devolution at all. ‘The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored,’ according to the former Lord Provost of Glasgow Michael Kelly.
Few people would bet on a vote in favour of independence – one Glaswegian punter recently wagered £200,000 on a No in 2014 at odds as short as 1/6 – but unionism is less ascendant than (some) polls suggest. Better Together’s awkward alliance of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties will come under greater pressure as the 2015 general election approaches. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour, anxious to distance itself from the unpopular coalition parties, started a separate campaign for a No vote, United with Labour.
Better Together’s negative campaigning may also backfire. In recent months, they have warned that independence would bring checkpoints at the border, mobile phone roaming charges south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the deportation south of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Privately the official No campaign is said to refer to itself as ‘Project Fear’. ‘Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here,’ the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish has said. ‘Scots don’t like to be talked to like idiots and there has been a constant haranguing of Scots by Westminster in terms of the type of campaign being run. This could create a backlash as Scots want to know what vision of Scotland within the Union the Unionists are campaigning for. If there’s another year of this people will start to rebel.’