It’s not exactly been a happy pre-anniversary for the Yes Scotland campaign. Looking at the deluge of one-year-to-go opinion polls, the only sensible conclusion is that very little has changed and independence is set to be rejected by a substantial majority. Yes, the number of don’t knows has gone up and there is a degree of fluidity about the supporters of devolution max. But there is no sign of an early breakthrough. Even Alex Salmond’s Aberdeenshire school students blew him a raspberry by voting against independence in mock elections by a margin of three to one.
The economic argument rages on to no particular purpose. All sides accept that Scotland could be a viable economy on its own, but the £500 question remains unanswered. An opinion poll by ICM last week suggested that 47% of Scots would vote Yes if they could be assured that independence would make them richer by this amount, while only 18% would vote for independence if they were made poorer. Nicola Sturgeon welcomed this poll and insisted that “on the basis of the current Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report Scotland’s finances are stronger than the UK’s as a whole to the tune of £4.4 billion – which equates to £824 per person”. Whether this fiscal arithmetic is right or not, I find it rather demeaning for the question of Scotland’s national renewal to be reduced to the cost of a minibreak in Benidorm.
Anyway, the Nationalists are always going to be on the defensive with these arguments because of the uncertainty factor. It is impossible to say whether Scotland would be better off after independence, and the hard fiscal reality is that a short period of post independence austerity is likely, even with the benefit of oil revenues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed last week that Scottish public spending, which it says is 17% higher per head than in England, would be squeezed in a transition period as Scotland tried to grapple with the debts inherited from the UK.
Now, the Nationalists rightly say that this is hardly their fault, and that is true. They are also right to argue that with oil and renewable resources, Scotland could be a viable and very effective economy. But it is hard to argue with the IFS calculation that there would be significant spending constraints in the short term. The IFS is the gold standard of financial accounting and its assessments have to be taken seriously, unlike the UK Treasury, which has been frankly producing propaganda in the guise of economic analysis.
Now, in any normal independence situation, such transitional costs would be seen as a price worth paying for national freedom. You didn’t find the Slovakia, the Lativa, or any of the other countries which won independence in 1990s worrying over such trivial sums. In Barcelona today, Catalonian nationalists don’t march in their millions demanding 500 more euros – they demand an end to domination from Madrid, cultural liberation, control of their own affairs. Scottish independence is in danger of turning into a bean-counter convention, where people are arguing over the small change in the national accounts instead of creating a vision of a better society.
So, it may seem strange then that, in the week independence was widely written off, Alex Salmond remained so upbeat. His speech to parliament betrayed none of the agonising that is going on within the wider independence movement. He hardly bothered about the future of the pound, pensions or membership of the EU and devoted most of his speech to praising Donald Dewar and the achievements of devolution; insisting that “decisions taken by Scots in Scotland are invariably better decisions”. That was the argument that won the 1997 devolution referendum
The First Minister’s almost Zen like calm in the face of what looks like a hurricane of bad news last week raised a number of questions. Does he know something we don’t? Is the forthcoming independence White Paper going to promise to pay each voting Scot £500 a year in perpetutity if they vote yes? Hardly. Salmond’s equanimity in the face of apparent defeat is, I think, because he realises that he and his party are not going down after the referendum whatever the result
Almost seven years since it entered government, the SNP government is as popular as it has ever been. In Holyrood voting intentions the party has been scoring over 40%, and if there were an election tomorrow, the nationalists would be returned with something close to their 2011 landslide. This is quite remarkable, as is Alex Salmond’s enduring popularity – he is still more popular than the opposition party leaders combined. This tells us something important about the Scottish voters. They may not be persuaded of the case for independence, but they do not criticise the SNP for advocating it – indeed, there is evidence that they rather like to have a government that so determinedly fights Scotland’s corner.
Some have criticised Salmond – though not publicly – for his failure to prosecute the indepedence case with passion. Where is the anger, where is the fighting spirit? But it may be that by sticking to a decidedly non-partisan and non-adversarial approach, by praising devolution and the legacy of Donald Dewar, Salmond is positioning his party to assume moral leadership in the post referendum Scotland irrespective of the result.
Perhaps sensing this, Labour’s astute shadow secretary, Douglas Alexander, repeated his plea to his party to avoid tribalism and start now to put together a road map for Scotland after September 2014. Alexander realises the danger of allowing Salmond to colonise the post-referendum moral high ground. He is calling for a cross party National Convention to move Scotland on to the next stage of home rule. But I fear Alexander may have an uphill struggle here, and not just because he is facing allegations from Gordon Brown’s ex-spindoctor that he advised Brown to sack his sister Wendy as Scottish Labour leader in 2008. I detect no real enthusiasm from the unionist campaign, still less the Westminster government, for giving Scotland a consolation prize for voting No. The vague promises made by Nick Clegg, and other UK party leaders, carry little conviction among Scots who remember only too well the promises that were made before the 1979 devolution referendum and not kept. Alexander’s convention will not meet unless and until there is a No vote. They are going to have to do better than that.
Now, I’m not saying that Alex Salmond has given up on winning the referendum. He is still absolutely confident that there will be a yes vote. Nevertheless, it is very significant I think that his body language is saying something slightly different: that he and his administration are in no mind to go down with the ship if he fails to persuade Scots to vote yes. Indeed, in the very long game that nationalists are playing, how they conduct themselves in adversity, and even in defeat, could lay the groundwork for a successful independence referendum some years hence. It isn’t over till it’s over, and the independence struggle never is.