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Challenges are still there for Yes camp

The spin machines for both Yes Scotland and Better Together went into overdrive yesterday trying to display the results of the latest Social Attitudes Survey to best advantage and there are, indeed, aspects of this research that both sides can claim as positives.

A dispassionate observer, however, would have to conclude that, overall, it makes worrying reading for the pro-independence campaign.

This respected annual survey shows that, by autumn, a year into the campaign, there had been no major change in attitudes to independence compared to the average since 1999, with a clear and substantial majority supporting the UK. Those who thought Scotland would improve economically under independence were in the minority and their numbers had dropped on the year previously. It also showed that uncertainty about what independence would mean for Scotland was, if anything, deepening.

There were shifts in favour of independence in some respects: 29% agreed Scotland should be independent, up from a historic low of 23%, and the referendum debate had apparently had an effect in persuading increasing numbers (32%) that England benefited more from the Union than Scotland (though 41% thought the two countries did so equally). A clear majority also thought the gap between rich and poor would narrow in an independent Scotland and that the country would have a stronger voice in the world.

However, the campaign was failing to persuade people that the economy or their standard of living would improve. Only 9% thought they would be personally better off. This failure matters so much because, as psephologist John Curtice emphasises, what people think would happen to Scotland economically after independence is the issue most closely allied to how they will vote. The better they think the economy will fare, the more likely they are to tick the Yes box, but they need to be convinced more than ever. Issues such as the currency and EU membership appear to leave them unmoved.

The SNP can rightly point out that the surveying took place before the much-vaunted White Paper on independence was published. That event may arguably have helped tackle voters' uncertainty about how an independent Scotland might look, but it has not transformed their attitudes to independence. It is clear from polls conducted since its publication that it has had only a modest effect in turning public opinion in favour of a firm Yes vote. Professor Curtice concluded in mid-December after a flurry of polls that the SNP's blueprint for an independent Scotland had given the Yes side a modest boost of "some two points or so". Not enough to upset the long-term trends; not enough to change the game.

What is impossible even for the experts to predict is the extent to which last-minute emotional surges and voting booth changes of heart will affect this campaign. Even allowing for such factors boosting the Yes campaign, though, it appears it must find a way of persuading many more voters of the economic benefits of independence if it is to be successful.

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