When the histories of the Scottish independence debate are written, 13 February 2014 will be seen as a crucial date in the story. It was then that George Osborne suggested that no Westminster government, of any party, could countenance a currency union with an independent Scotland. Such an arrangement might be good for Scotland but it would make little sense for the rump United Kingdom. And with that observation, boom went much of the nationalists’ economic credibility.
Osborne and his accomplice Alistair Darling might seem an improbable double act (though Osborne’s record in office bears a passing resemblance to Darling’s plans had Labour won) but together they might just have saved the Union.
In their first televised debate, Darling ruthlessly exploited Alex Salmond’s currency quandary as he stormed to an unexpected victory. You can have a formal currency union, Darling explained, or you can have independence, but not both. Salmond’s ‘blind faith’ and ‘guesswork’ are flimsy nails upon which to hang a nation’s future.
In truth, the chances are that Scots do not want independence at all. They have flirted with the idea but in the end there’s a great difference between flirtation and consummation. With just six weeks until referendum day, no opinion poll has yet put yes ahead.
Actually Darling’s debate victory owed little to any defence of the Union and much to his willingness to assault Salmond’s presumptions. Sensibly, he did his best to avoid mentioning Britain or Britishness, far less waxing lyrical about them. For all the complaints about a lack of poetry from unionists, the truth is that voters are put off by talk of flags, identity and nationality. By contrast, Better Together insiders say, ‘risk and uncertainty’ test ‘off the charts’ in focus groups.
The yes campaign’s focus groups relate the same message, which is why the SNP leadership has generally eschewed tub-thumping rhetoric. A vote for independence is not a Braveheart ballot but a measured evaluation of the national interest. The symbols and trappings of nationalism often actually embarrass the modern SNP. Their campaign was built in three stages. First it would show that Scotland could be independent, then that it should be independent and then, finally, that it must be independent. The first has been accomplished and the second partially achieved but little real progress has been made on the third. Independence works in theory but the public have not been persuaded of its necessity.
In part, this is because the yes campaign struggles to understand why anyone might disagree with it. Nationalists often talk in terms as though unionist voters are simpletons who need to be gently shown the error of their ways. Scots really want to vote yes; they just don’t know it yet. The extent of this wishful thinking can be astonishing. According to the novelist James Robertson, for instance, even English people worried by the break-up of Britain are would-be yes voters. He tells his English friends who value the Union that ‘If you lived in Scotland you would also be yes voters.’
But many Scots are actually happy, even proud, to vote no. They see a United Kingdom that they think deserves to be defended — a country largely built by Scottish minds and Scottish labour — and wonder why they should welcome the chance to abandon their inheritance. Especially for an adventure that is as uncertain as it seems unnecessary.
But nationalists are so convinced of their cause that, increasingly, they search for reasons to explain the polls’ stubborn unwillingness to reflect their point of view. One Scottish government minister declares herself ‘absolutely convinced’ that the polls underestimate the number of undecided voters. This has become a common complaint in nationalist circles.
I asked a pollster what he thought of that. Response: ‘Bloody hell. Is that their latest theory? I’m not aware of any reason or evidence to think they’re right.’ It reminds me of the mood in excitable Republican circles in the last months of the 2012 American presidential campaign. All the polls suggested Barack Obama would win; therefore the polls must be skewed. A movement arose to ‘unskew’ them, and reveal the picture that was being kept hidden from the American people. Awkwardly, the real votes turned out to match the skew.
Perhaps the polls are wrong in Scotland. Perhaps something will happen in the last six weeks of campaigning to change hearts and minds. But at present the great divide among the six major polling companies is between those who think the no side is eight points ahead and those who think it leads by 15.
But, splutter yes supporters, our canvassing tells a very different picture. Well it would, wouldn’t it? In my own experience, canvassers for the yes campaign will go to any length to persuade themselves that a likely no vote can be filed as ‘undecided’. This is a campaign that loves its arguments not wisely but too well.
There are other signs of nationalist derangement. For instance, the wilder type of nationalist seems convinced that a massive new oil field has been discovered off Shetland but the oil companies, in cahoots with the UK government, have chosen to suppress this information until after the referendum. This is a movement that is losing its mind.
In truth, it is a campaign that has misjudged Scotland. Promising Scots that nothing good about Britain will change but everything bad will disappear insults voters’ intelligence. And the more the SNP attempts to reassure Scots, the more it reinforces the notion that independence is a great leap into the unknown. If it weren’t, there’d be less need for the nationalists’ Project Reassurance.
Equally, the more Salmond stresses Scotland’s prosperity and readiness for independence, the more he inadvertently undermines the need for independence. If Scotland were a poor and miserable place, independence might be desirable but risky. Since it is a wealthy and successful place, independence might be reckoned desirable but unnecessary. Scotland, like Britain, is not perfect but neither is it irredeemably broken and there is no widely felt grievance for which national ‘liberation’ is the only possible solution.
Salmond can be expected to perform better in future debates and the nationalists’ superior ground operation may yet have an impact. Nevertheless, as matters stand, the odds on Scotland voting for independence are lengthening. The Union is not yet safe but it is safer than it has been at any previous point this year. For that, Darling — and Osborne — deserve more credit than they are likely to receive.