Friday, 9 March 2012

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

The latest YouGov poll is said to be good news for Alex Salmond and the SNP strategy of playing down the level of separation from the rUK that Scottish independence would mean, and a bit of a kick in the teeth for the so-called "fundamentalists". Perhaps, if we take some of the findings in the poll at face value and, give each question equal weight in terms of importance to the meaning of independence, there might be some truth in what "they" say. However, as is well established by now, "weight" will be given by each side in accordance with what each actually wants the poll to say and not what it actually says. The poll drew comparisons between the answers given to the same group of questions in July 2008 and between 22 and 24 February 2012, by a random sample of 1,053 Scots.

What the poll seems to say, is that since the SNP came to power, Scots have become "more British" in their outlook, as expressed by their preference for British institutions. This is hardly the kind of responses that even the "wettest" of SNP supporters is likely to welcome, never mind the hard line "fundies" both inside and outwith the party. I doubt there will be many SNP members who will relish the thought that after five years of SNP government, where the party is alleged to have pushed the idea of "independence" and displayed enough competance in office, to persuade even their hardest critics that there is enough talent in the party to make a decent fist of governing an independent Scotland, the party has made the prospect of independence more remote. They have certainly done their best to take the "scariness" out of the possibility of independence, by arguing that not a lot will change.

Perhaps one of the consequences of such a strategy, has in fact been to persuade Scots that keeping the pound sterling is perfectly feasable, even although a majority of Scots say they want complete control of our finances or taxation at the same time. It is not just worth while but obligatory, to examine in some detail, how the various arguments are being presented to the Scottish electorate, as the presentation of those arguments will undoubtedly have an enormous effect on the outcome of the vote. For example, the latest GERS report shows that Scotland is in better shape than the UK but is that how it was reported? Not quite, at least by the Daily Mail, which heads its take on the matter, "£11 billion wake-up call for Salmond - Economy plunges deep into the red." In contrast The Scotsman, not exactly a fan of either the SNP or Alex Salmond, took a slightly different line, "Scotland better off than the UK with 'only' £10.7bn overdraft." The Mail made not a single mention of the more precarious position of the UK, where the budget deficit for 2010-11 was 9.2% as opposed to Scotland's 7.4%. We can expect no less for the next two years, as the Unionist camp spin and lie to their hearts' content, while demanding guarantees from the SNP and the National Movement as a whole. Unfortunately, The Mail is the most popular paper in Scotland while the circulation of The Scotsman is dropping.

For a number of years I wrote a regular column for the Scots Independent and in the August 1986 edition I wrote, "Unless Scots can be persuaded to look at Scotland as something more than just a meal ticket, then freedom from the suffocating Union with England will forever remain a dream. The Scottish dimension must include an awareness, and more importantly a recognition, of a distinct Scottish culture, of Scottish institutions and of Scottish history - both political and economic. Above all there must be a desire that the spiritual and territorial integrity of the Scottish nation should remain intact." After 26 years I still believe that to be true but according to the YouGov poll, there is less concern for Scottish institutions now and more concern about Scotland's ability to "afford independence". Is that true or is that just one interpretation?

The first point to note is that not all the questions will carry the same weight of importance, either in peoples' minds or for the success or failure of independence. For example, whether or not we can actually be allowed to screen Coronation Street, is hardly likely to determine whether independence is feasible, but the currency most definitely will. Membership of the EU, out or in, is rather more important than what we should do about our football league. On the other hand, having the monarchy would make no difference to whether or not Scotland could make a success of independence, but it matters a great deal to many Scots, to such an extent it could determine the direction of their vote. The second point is that the nature of the questions themselves, are couched in terms that favour a UK or British preference and thirdly, do the respondents actually understand the contradictions in some of the answers? For example, what is the difference between "Status quo" favoured by 33% and "Tax and spending powers but as part of the UK", favoured by 36%?

On the question of the currency, in 2008, 20% of respondents wanted to join the euro but that figure has dropped to less than 5%, while those who want to keep the pound sterling has gone up from 67% in 2008 to over 80% in 2012. That is hardly surprising given the debacle in the euro zone and the sheer weight of media attention it has attracted. Equally, it is hardly surprising that support for a Scottish currency has gone up, but to a paltry 10% as it is never mentioned as an alternative. But do the respondents understand that keeping the pound sterling and an independent fiscal policy, with no funding from Westminster, will be at best problematic and in a "worst case scenario" could cause serious problems and would inevitably inhibit independent action by the Scottish government, the supposed intention behind the desire for fiscal powers?

Commentators have opined that the responses to the poll explain the "softly, softly" approach by the SNP and the party's insistence on emphasising the areas of "no change" even if Scots vote "yes" in the referendum. The consensus of opinion is that the party is making use of its own polling agents and focus groups, tapping into the fears and preferences of the electorate, so that it can present a programme for independence which will give assurances that the Queen, the currency, the social union, and even Corrie and East Enders will remain as part of the "independent Scottish state". I have no doubt that there is more than a grain of truth in that but it means that SNP policy is the product of opinion poll findings and focus group preferences, rather than principle. It may bring the party electoral success but will it bring Scotland independence?

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