Slow burn Scottish vote

Stephen Noon says Yes Scotland is playing a long game in the referendum struggle

I can understand why some commentators scan the political horizon looking for the One Big Event – a ­national Road-to-Damascus moment – that will, in an instant, change the direction of Scotland’s referendum. It’s good for a headline and adds to the potential excitement in what is already a long campaign.

As a political anorak, I enjoy the hunt for a ‘game changer’ that will suddenly and immediately shift the polls but, back in the real world, I know that for a great many,  conversion to Yes is a much more subtle process. The ‘game’ will change – of that I have no doubt. But I will be content with victory delivered on a slow burn.

Scotland Votes


Tomorrow: Swansea West Labour AM Mike Hedges asks how long a shared currency would last if Scotland chooses independence

On Monday: Alan Trench suggests ‘Devo More’ could be a halfway house between the status quo and independence


We need to get our pace correct and build the momentum, constantly generating shifts in perception, and that is why big set pieces, such as the White Paper launch last November, are vitally important. The value of Scotland’s Future was always more than its mere appearance, but rather how it would be used. Its power – its game-changing power – is the energy it creates, in terms of substance, tone and vision.

From the beginning, the Yes campaign has been focused on building the groundswell of support needed for success in September, recognising that the transition from No or Undecided to Yes is a very individual journey.

Voters across Scotland are not seeking some eureka moment that cascades from the political bubble (whether Holyrood or Westminster). Instead, what will happen, and is happening, is a series of changing attitudes as people weigh up not only the consequences of a Yes but also the costs of a No.

Within the Yes campaign we ask tens of thousands of people their views on independence in two very different ways. First, Yes/No/Don’t Know to the question: Should Scotland be an independent country? And, then, on a more nuanced 1-10 scale. A score of 1 means Alistair Darling or David Cameron levels of opposition to independence, while a 10 is at the Dennis Canavan or Nicola Sturgeon end of the scale.

What this approach tells us is that fewer than a third of Scots are wedded to Westminster, with the remaining two-thirds open to the idea of independence. That first figure closely matches the 29 per cent of voters who said, in a poll commissioned by the No campaign at the turn of the year, that they supported the status quo (a figure confirmed by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, last week). This is the hard core of the No vote and it is outnumbered both by supporters of the full powers of independence and, crucially, the greater powers of Devo Max.

After the SNP’s success in 2011, turning a massive poll deficit into an equally massive poll lead, I very much believe in the potential for big shifts in public opinion.

For Yes, there are two clear challenges to meet before we can be confident that openness to independence will translate into Yes votes. First, people need to believe that Scotland could be independent: that we’ve got what it takes, as the Yes slogan puts it. This, ultimately, is about confidence in Scotland and our abilities. Second, is the essence of the referendum question itself. Not ‘could we be?’, but ‘should we be independent?’, with the key element being the need to persuade voters that the move to this new way of doing things will be worth the effort – that there will be gains for them and their loved ones.

Much of last year was spent dismantling the ‘could we be’ barrier, aided, ironically, by pro-Westminster politicians themselves. As the chief opponent of Yes, Cameron, has said, “supporters of independence will always cite examples of small, independent and thriving economies, such as Switzerland and Norway. It would be wrong to suggest that Scotland could not be another such successful, independent country”. I could hardly have phrased it better myself, or matched the comments of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who believes Scotland “is big enough, rich enough and good enough to be an independent country”, or indeed those of former Labour Scottish Secretary, Lord Robertson, who believes that “of course we’ve got the economic vitality, and we’ve got the people and we’ve got the resources”.

It seems No politicians say one thing when trying to scare voters and another when admitting the fundamental truth about our nation and its prospects after a Yes.

The White Paper’s importance to the Yes campaign was not that it would inspire, simply by its existence, mass overnight conversions to the cause (as some of the speculative polling taken within days and hours of the publication seemed to be searching for). The key purpose of Scotland’s Future, along with other initiatives such as Green Yes, was to enable the campaign to pivot on to the next phase of activity, the ‘should we’ stage, with the White Paper presenting a compelling picture of what a Yes vote means.

Not only have we been presented with the most detailed blueprint ever for a transition to independence, the White Paper also contains the ingredients to enable us to imagine living in an independent Scotland, whether with better childcare, higher wages or a more secure state pension – all part of the normalisation of independence. For the first time, for many voters, they have been able to see, explore and understand the why of independence.

Of course, if, like Cameron, you believe that an independent Scotland can be as successful as Norway or Switzerland, then these gains on childcare, wages and pensions, are exactly the things that would follow. The logic of his argument is not that Scotland would be cast out into the darkness after a Yes, but instead we could use our undoubted wealth, ingenuity and resources to deliver higher standards of living and greater security. We would have the opportunity, if we chose, to share our wealth more fairly across society (and not, as has become the Westminster way, giving the greatest gains to the super-rich).

The ‘could we’, therefore, underpins the ‘should we’, with independence first made credible and possible and then its benefits meaningful, personal and real. The specific policy proposals set out in the White Paper offer clear signposts for the sort of nation Scotland can and should become, and provide what can only be the first steps in a new direction:

  • We can have a fairer Scotland, with the worst of Westminster’s welfare changes, like the Bedroom Tax, scrapped.
  • We can have a more prosperous Scotland, with tax policy designed to give Scottish job-creators a competitive advantage.
  • And, we can make life easier for young families with better childcare, and more secure for older people with decent pension increases guaranteed.

As the Scottish Parliament has proved, where responsibility already rests in Scotland, we can and do make better decisions than Westminster. Independence means more of the same self-government success.

For Yes, therefore, with our two steps to increase support – could we be and should we be independent – each part of the equation works in very personal and subtle ways to nudge, rather than catapult, people up the support scale. And the means is very much the face-to-face conversation: the conversion over time, as our committed volunteers and supporters spread the message.

For No, in contrast, there are three obstacles – or perhaps more accurately, bear pits – to navigate if they are to hold on to support: first, whether their promise of more powers will be sufficient or even credible; second, the outcome of the European elections and whether we are on the slippery slope to the EU exit door; and, finally, the biggest fear factor in Scottish politics, the prospect of yet more Westminster Tory rule. These are key issues that will help define the choice in September, because it is a choice between two futures.

The No campaign’s three-pronged challenge is, perhaps, even greater than the twin task for Yes, given the softness of No support.

In all three areas, Yes offers the greatest certainty. A Yes means full powers, enabling us to get on with the crucial tasks of releasing the potential of our people and our economy so we can create more opportunities here in Scotland. It means we won’t be taken out of the EU, against our will, by votes elsewhere in the UK, protecting our access to the half-billion-strong European Single Market. And, in a phrase that triggers both a big smile and a very powerful thought process on almost every Labour-voting doorstep, a Yes means no more Tory governments that we didn’t vote for.

The No Parties are currently walking the ‘more powers’ tightrope, and it looks as though we will begin to get some clarity on their offerings by March. All signs suggest this could be their first tumble of the year, and trigger a major crumbling of their support. Failure to deliver significant powers on taxes, wages and welfare will give Scotland less than we need and want. I know, from conversations with people in the Labour movement and Third Sector in particular, that insufficient offerings in these areas will be the green light for their switch to Yes.

My guess is that the No parties think they can get away with offering the bare minimum. It is only when the polls narrow that the pressure will be really on to promise significant progress. And, given what we know already about Labour and Tory plans, my expectation is that the closest thing to Devo Max on the ballot paper in September will be a Yes to independence. After all, Cameron and his No colleagues blocked the inclusion of a ‘more powers’ option.

With Labour MPs already fighting a rearguard action, and one admitting there is no appetite at Westminster for major constitutional change in Scotland’s favour in the event of a No vote, the most likely more-powers positions to emerge from within the No parties will fall well short of the powers Scotland needs. What will emerge will fail to reach the minimum threshold for change, which would see, in particular, taxation and welfare powers transferred north – a position supported by six in 10 voters.

With a Yes, and the proposal for a new partnership set out in the White Paper, people get the greater powers they want over tax, employment, economic growth and welfare, but with important pan-UK links maintained, alongside ongoing partnerships on defence in Nato, and through an enhanced and refreshed social union. Full powers, rather than just more powers, means a seat at the top table in the EU and the power to rid our shores of the obscenity of nuclear weapons: powerful incentives on their own.

The No campaign has an opportunity to make a firm and clear commitment on more powers that does more than tinker at the edges of tax and does not leave welfare policy in the hands of future UK Tory governments. Will they take it? I wouldn’t bet your house on it. And that’s just one more reason why I believe that Yes will win in September.

Stephen Noon is chief strategist of Yes Scotland.

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