We are now less than a year away from the independence referendum on September 18th, 2014. That can still seem a very long time away, not only to those who might already be wearying of the Yes/No claim and counter claim game that dominates the broadcast media, but even for enthusiastic and committed activists and campaign organisers. However, there is some evidence (admittedly some of it anecdotal) of more engagement with the real issues around independence, in social media, and in public meetings across the country. And Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has said we are now in Phase 2 of the campaign. The 'phoney war' is over. The next few months will be crucial, with the second All-Scotland Independence Rally the week the year long countdown begins and Scottish Government's White paper due to be published in November.
For those of us desperate to secure a Yes vote and free Scotland from the electoral tyranny of a Westminster politics dominated by the two flavours of neo-liberalism – Thatcherite and Blairite - there should be no sense of dismay at the current poll position, which shows us behind but with everything to play for, but nor should there be any complacency either.
According to Scotland's very own celebrity psephologist, Professor John Curtice, recent polls have shown consistently that if the ballot were to be held tomorrow rather on September 18th 2014 the result would be a No vote, with around 41% voting for independence and around 59% to to stay in the Union. Deeper analyses show the situation as more fluid however, with consistently around 30-35% committed to independence, 50-55% saying they would vote no, and between 10 and 20% don’t knows. The hard line unionist vote – those that will vote No whatever the circumstances are, is estimated to be around 44%, and those that will vote Yes, whatever the circumstances, around 30%. There is also a significant gender gap in voting intentions, with significantly fewer numbers of women committed to voting Yes. The polling also shows the battle still has to won with the youth vote
Yes Scotland are right to point out that an 10% swing would produce a decisive Yes vote, and that there is a long way to go in this campaign. They are also correct to point out that much of the No vote is currently not based on any positive case for remaining in the Union but on the uncertainty and confusion created by negative and often wholly unsubstantiated scare stories created by the Better Together campaign, in cahoots with the UK Con-Dem government, a largely pro-unionist print media and the aptly named BBC - Project Fear as it so infamously named itself.
The question is what are we going to do about it? As night follows day only one conclusion can follow from an analysis of the current poll figures, and that is the Better Together campaign – cynical and dishonest as it is – has nevertheless been working to an extent up to the present time. They will talk about presenting a positive case for the union, but in fact their sole strategy has been to create a mood of uncertainty about independence. They understand that across the broad spectrum of voters there are those committed on both sides, those who will carefully way up arguments, but that the critical group – and the most easily influenced by the kind of media approach they think they can control – are the less engaged voters who may take newspaper headlines as fact, and who will shy away from ‘uncertainty’. This is the group of voters Better Together understand they have to target in order to retain the union.
This is a strategy that they feel comfortable with. Aided by a gullible and sympathetic media it’s easy to get results. Simply challenge the SNP, or Yes Scotland, to come up with ‘detail’ on how an independent Scotland would work on a range of issues; in relation to Europe, currency, borders, international treaties and so on. Even when a perfectly reasonable position is laid out by Yes campaigners, they then claim ‘uncertainty’ or that ‘the SNP have no answers’. This is an utterly dishonest position because they know damn fine that the ‘detail’ of all of those things would have to be worked out in a process of negotiation between all parties concerned after a pro-independence vote. Calls from academics, independent groups, and think tanks for the UK government and the Scottish government to come together and thrash out a programme for transition to an independent state have fallen on deaf ears as far as the unionist side are concerned. The UK government say they will not pre-negotiate independence. From their point of view that would remove the very ‘uncertainty’ they are trying to create to frighten voters.
There is a feeling in some quarters of the Yes campaign that matters will improve once the white paper is produced by the Scottish Government. Or once we are into the 16 week official campaign period and the Representation of the People Act kicks in to ensure more balanced media coverage. Two points need to be made, however, and both are critical to whether the independence referendum can be won.
First, whether the white paper boosts support for Yes will depend on its contents. We know from the polls that many current don’t knows’ could be persuaded to support independence if they felt they were guaranteed to be better off in an independent Scotland. Second, waiting until the 16 week period to seriously bring about an 10% swing would be the height of folly. The Yes campaign needs to go into the last sixteen weeks, even the start of 2014, with some momentum i.e. having already made up some significant ground in the opinion polls.
The Yes campaign needs to move up a gear right now, and I have a number of suggestions I would like to put to both Yes Scotland and strategists in all of the pro-independence parties.
Firstly. turn the ‘uncertainty’ weapon around and aim it right back at ‘Better Together’. As we said in a previous editorial it is the status quo –staying in the UK - that is the more dangerous option for the big majority of Scots. Pro-independence forces should consistently question the many faces of unionism about what will happen to Scots if they stay in the UK and then ram home ‘the uncertainty principle’ after every answer. Let them explain “what guarantee will you give Scots on Europe if they remain in the union?”, “will you confirm no further bank bailouts using taxpayers money?”, will cuts in welfare or pay freezes cease and if so when?”, “will Labour abolish the Bedroom Tax is Scots vote to remain in the UK?” “what increased powers will you guarantee the Scottish Parliament” etc etc. Then let us pick apart what will inevitably contradictory, confused or evasive answers. (We dare say many other questions could be thought of).
To a certain extent, since this article was first published in a slightly different form, this has begun to be done. But we need more of it and we need to hit home harder. It's worth noting that a poll showed the Yes vote was significantly ahead amongst that section of the population who spend significant time online. Yes has produced some excellent material and there are some great posters out there in cyberspace - but despite the justified for social media, it would be a mistake to think that this is where the majority of the population get their information from. We need to take some of the memes that have been successful onlne and spend some money to blitz the country with mainstream advertising. Billboards, bus-stops, newspapers are seen by everyone.
Secondly, people need material reasons to swing their vote for independence. Of course that veers into the arena of policy, rather than the constitution, and policy post-independence is a difficult one. In 2014, people are actually only voting for what is on the ballot paper i.e. independence. They will then vote for the parties they wish to govern Scotland every four years in elections, beginning in 2016. This is something that can’t be stressed enough. On the other hand, vague assurances about a fairer, more prosperous, socially just Scotland will not be enough to swing those voters that we need to win– particularly women voters who tend to be more concrete and pragmatic.
The Point ultimately wants to see a democratic socialist and green republic of Scotland...but we recognise the pragmatic necessity of a progressive and appealing minimum program that all of the pro-independence parties could agree on, and also be advanced by Yes Scotland.
It's no surprise that this week the No campaign have seized on yet another report, based on utterly discredited Office of Budget Responsibility projections for Oil and Gas revenue to allow screaming headlines in their friendly press about £5.9 billion 'black holes' and 15% tax rises after independence. They know that the eonomy is key - and creating fear about the economic well-being of Scots in an Independent Scotland is their only way to win.
The key for us lies in the factual figures that have already been calculated independently based on the reality that Scotland has raised more than it has spent for the last thirty years; that we currently contribute 9.7% of all UK taxes, but receive just 9.3% of spending. On basis of the surplus that Scotland would have available to it on the basis of expenditure and revenue and on more reasonable industry and government projections of oil and gas revenue, together with money saved on defence spending, Trident, and not having to pay for Westminster politicians and the Scottish Office. This represents an average year on year independence surplus for Scotland that we could calculate and allocate.
On that basis, let’s assume an annual revenue position based on the last GERS (General Revenue and Expenditure Scotland) report and those other factors that would give an independent Scotland an additional 6-7 billion pounds per annum as compared to remaining in the Union - with no additional tax raising other than the obvious points of re-instating the 50% tax band for earnings over 150, 000 a year that the Tories abolished for their chums, and the introduction of an effective general anti-tax avoidance bill - and then make a joint policy commitment (for example) to
A minimum program like this (or something like it, this is only an example, remember) guaranteed as post independence manifesto commitments by all of the pro-independence parties, and campaigned for by Yes Scotland on the basis of what is possible, could galvanise hundreds of thousands of additional Yes votes.
Thirdly, we need to get ourselves a couple of hard-nosed, bare knuckle ‘Malcolm Tuckers’ to push the Yes case with the media behind the scenes, and to demand parity whenever any aspect of the referendum is discussed, whether in the print or the broadcast media. We should insist on parity between Yes Scotland and Better Together, and where party spokespersons are involved, on parity between pro-independence and unionist parties.
And last but not least, we also need to spend some significant money between now and the sixteen week period to counter the bias of the print media. We need to address a personal communication to every elector in Scotland based on the points above, hammer home these messages through all available media, and (we know we're reeating the point above, but it bears repeating) pay for national poster and newspaper advertising campaigns to back these messages up and make them the currency of popular conversation in homes, pubs and workplaces throughout Scotland.
I believe these measures taken together to be the gear change necessary in phase 2 of the campaign to maintain recent momentum, put Better Together on the back foot, put the Yes campaign firmly back in control of the agenda, and galvanise our natural support in the grass-roots campaign on the ground.
If all of us who support Yes are prepared both to be bold and pragmatic in this way then the next 6 months can see the turning of the tide in our favour. That momentum could then be consolidated in mid-2014, and the deal sealed with the Scottish people in the final 16 week period.
It’s all to play for, but a year from now will come quicker than anybody thinks.
Let's all up our game in Phase 2.
This article first appeared in an earlier and slightly different form as a Point Editorial in Issue 3.