Comment: Yes needs a big win for legitimacy
As Christmas approaches after a long and arduous 12 months, Scotland faces the prospect of a new year during which its relationship with the rest of the UK will once again be on the line. Unless the opposition parties can turn water into wine in a little under six months, the SNP will romp home.
If they do, 2014’s once in a generation opportunity looks likely to be back sooner than promised. And however implacable the UK Government’s opposition to another referendum is, it is increasingly difficult to see that position being sustainable.
Whether it could come as early as next year seems doubtful, but it could be nearer than we think. So where will the battleground be and how will the battle be won and lost? Ipsos MORI’s recent polling offers some pretty big clues. It will be in the centre ground, not at the margins and with heads, not hearts.
In 2014, a dizzyingly high 85 per cent of the electorate voted. In a closely fought contest, turnout could be as high next time round. In the order of 3.5 million votes are at stake. Yet polling suggests that no more than 850,000 of them are really up for grabs.
That’s because a series of polls, including several by Survation for Progress Scotland, and the recent MORI survey, indicate that only around a fifth of both Yes and No-leaning voters are really persuadable in the other direction. Pretty much everyone else has made up their minds. The net effect is that what looks so often on social media to be a contest of hard edges is really about the soft centre.
Public opinion is quite different this time round, with Yes in a sustained and increasingly robust lead. But for me, this feels like déjà vu. As the Christmas lights came on seven years ago, I was wavering. I might, just might, shift from No to Yes.
In the succeeding nine months I became one of the 15 per cent who changed their minds and took Yes to within shouting distance of victory. Although that journey involved thinking the previously unthinkable, I no more considered myself a unionist than a nationalist.
I had no interest in becoming part of a Yes movement, still less in flying flags or marching for independence. Rather, as an advocate of devo max, I was persuaded that it was worth taking a leap of faith, even though the economic case looked a bit ropey. It wasn’t, for all my loyalty to Scottish roots, about identity.
Devo max is making a late comeback. But the odds are still on another binary vote, albeit not necessarily framed as Yes versus No. I’ve long been convinced that in order for Yes to win it must focus on the middle ground. That means first keeping those who were won over during the last nine months in 2014 and persuading more like them to jump ship.
The way Yes has used the momentum of that 55-45 result, and the way an even narrower Brexit result has played out, points to the need for Yes to hit the 60 per cent mark. That means doubling the 2014 turnaround.
Of course, it doesn’t necessarily matter where the votes come from. But it is worth looking at where Yes needs to maintain its position – and break new ground – if it is win to unambiguously.
People worth paying particular attention to are ABC1 voters, private sector workers and those born outside Scotland, where the Yes lead appears more fragile. Among owner occupiers, No may still be in the lead. And the over 65s are still pro union albeit trending to Yes.
Looking at those figures, the dividing line is less between unionism and nationalism and more about risk and certainty. For Yes, though the economic argument still looks challenging, they are in luck because the UK economy doesn’t look like the safest bet either. The questioner who asked why if we were Better Together in 2014, we weren’t better already, would have a stronger suit now.
On Europe, the 2014 calculation is in reverse. Indeed, because it has been a key factor in the drift to Yes, a poor outcome should keep the switchers onside. But they must be persuaded that an independent Scotland will be able to re-join the EU. No deal is a double-edged sword though. Look at the chaos, No will say, expect more of the same.
Frustratingly for those in the Yes movement dreaming of a radically progressive Scotland, the voters they need appear interested in more mundane matters. No still needs to pay more attention to the emotional arguments and must not leave them to the last minute. But however much the balance of risk and certainty has shifted, those who are persuadable remain susceptible to Project Fear mark two.
All this matters because to win with maximum legitimacy, Yes needs to win big. But to settle it for another generation and more, No just needs to squeak over the line. Next year’s contest may appear to be all about change, but the arguments look like being the same as they ever were.