TODAY'S TNS-BMRB poll, published exclusively in The Herald this morning, makes fascinating reading, though it would be foolish for either side in Scotland's independence debate to base any assumptions upon it.
This campaign has a long, long way to run.
Certainly the public mood seems to be shifting. For five years the SNP has enjoyed a fair wind but that momentum appears to be faltering. In the same poll 14 months ago, supporters of independence seemed to edge past its opponents. Today more than half of those questioned reject independence, compared with just 28% who would vote Yes. The figures are even starker among certain groups, particularly Glaswegians, women and older voters. (With considerably more support for independence among the under-25s than the over-65s, the SNP risks being accused of political opportunism if it attempts to enfranchise today's 14 and 15-year-olds for this referendum. This vote is too important for experiments with the franchise.)
Fewer voters are now in the undecided camp: just 19%. In fact, even if the Yes campaign claimed every one of them, still it would not win. However, that does not mean that independence is a lost cause. Two years is an aeon in politics.
What has changed? Three things. Firstly, as Yes Campaign chief executive Blair Jenkins has acknowledged, this is a fight for "hearts and minds". In the spring Scotland seemed slightly detached from the frantic flag-waving that accompanied the Queen's diamond jubilee. That began to change during the Olympic torch relay and the new mood gained momentum during an extraordinary summer for British sport, from the triumph of Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France to the extraordinary victory snatched by Europe's British-dominated Ryder Cup team. The sight of Andy Murray and Sir Chris Hoy swathed in the Union flag helped detoxify the brand. Our sporting heroes could be both Scottish and British. And Scots happily cheered on Team GB and not merely the Scots in the Olympics and Paralympics.
Secondly, as Scots begin to examine the issues around the currency, the EU, Nato and taxation, the complexity of the decision facing voters is becoming more apparent. Alistair Darling has gained some traction with the paradox that an independent Scotland using sterling could be more dependent than it is now on decisions made in London, over which it has no control. Assurances about life post-independence inevitably depend on a mound of assumptions and hypotheticals, which do not sit easily with traditional Scottish small-c conservatism. The No campaign can afford to admit that Scottish independence is feasible. The question is whether it would benefit Scotland or Scots.
Thirdly, up to now the SNP has, rightly, relied on its reputation for stable, competent government in attempting to woo the doubters on independence. Yet increasingly, not only their opponents but respected neutrals, such as former auditor general Robert Black, are questioning the Scottish Government's spending priorities. Is it right that one of the world's richest women, JK Rowling, could in theory enjoy thousands of pounds worth of free prescriptions or the Duke of Buccleuch travel around Scotland all day long on a free bus pass, if he so chose, while frail hard-up pensioners in Glasgow have to pay £3 a week for emergency alarms because local authority budgets have been cut beyond the bone?
Much could change. Alex Salmond and his team are formidable politicians and in two years the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn could bring a whole new perspective to Unionism. However, as this poll indicates, they have questions to answer about both their current policies and an independent Scotland's future prospects.
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