Negative pro-Union campaign causes Tory jitters about Scottish independence

Have you noticed that here in in the news desert of Christmas to New Year which relies so much on looking back and looking ahead, Northern Ireland and Scotland barely rate a mention compared to a flooded village in Kent?  Until now perhaps in the case of   Scotland, although you have to search for the odd  largely bewildering filler on the Haaas talks about “flags, parades and dealing with the past.”

As so often, Iain McWhirter in the Herald spotted a trend and put the arguments clearly.

The opinion polls have scarcely moved all year, with support for independence still stuck at around 30%. Yet, the UK cabinet, we are told, is increasingly anxious about the result of September’s referendum. Coalition ministers are apparently worried that support for the union remains brittle, and vulnerable to a late surge of support for nationalism.

Questions are being raised about whether Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor who chairs the Better Together campaign, is sufficiently combative against Alex Salmond. However, it’s hard to believe that a more belligerent politician could have done much better. Or does David Cameron know something that we don’t? Have focus groups detected an early change in the tide of opinion in Scotland?

Scots have really only started thinking of independence as a practical possibility in the last decade or so – since the creation of the Scottish parliament. It seems unlikely that this weight of history can be dispelled in the nine short months left until the referendum in September.

However, it is not impossible. After all, the Scottish voters have certainly shown that they are capable of voting in very large numbers for the party of independence, the SNP. In 2011, the Nationalists were trailing Labour by ten points in the polls at this stage in the Holyrood elections, and yet Alex Salmond went on to win by a landslide.

This is what is giving civil servants in Westminster sleepless nights.

Scots have really only started thinking of independence as a practical possibility in the last decade or so – since the creation of the Scottish parliament. It seems unlikely that this weight of history can be dispelled in the nine short months left until the referendum in September. However, it is not impossible. After all, the Scottish voters have certainly shown that they are capable of voting in very large numbers for the party of independence, the SNP. In 2011, the Nationalists were trailing Labour by ten points in the polls at this stage in the Holyrood elections, and yet Alex Salmond went on to win by a landslide.

Voters not only  seem unimpressed by attempts to frighten them off independence, they don’t believe them if a UK  wide poll ( albeit  commissioned  by the SNP) is any guide.

Respondents were asked: “Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom are among each other’s largest trading partners. Putting aside your own views on whether or not Scotland should become an independent country, if independence does happen do you think that Scotland and the rest of the UK should continue using the pound in an agreed sterling area?”

Forty-six per cent said “yes, definitely” while 25% said “yes, I think so”. Sixteen per cent said they were unsure while seven per cent said “no, I don’t think so” and five per cent said “definitely not”.

Now comes a lead report in the Sunday Times (£) which warns of the need for a new strategy. Or is it just another filler on a slack news day?

Tories fear Scots will break away

Jason Allardyce, Isabel Oakeshott and Jack Grimston Published: 29 December 2013

Senior Tories fear the SNP’s Alex Salmond could pull of a shock referendum win (Andrew Milligan)

DAVID CAMERON has been warned that the future of the United Kingdom is in jeopardy as the campaign to save the union founders.

Senior Tories have spoken of their fear that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister and nationalist leader, could defy the odds and pull off a shock victory in the forthcoming referendum on independence.

Among those who have voiced concerns about the state of the unionist campaign are Lynton Crosby, the prime minister’s election guru, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and prominent Scottish Conservatives.

Lord Forsyth, a former Scottish secretary, accused the government of complacency about the September referendum but also criticised the Labour opposition at Westminster.

“Where is the government?” he said. “Where is the opposition making the case in the United Kingdom parliament for the United Kingdom?

“We had the ridiculous independence white paper published by Salmond last month and I waited for the government to announce a debate in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and nothing happened . . . The Commons has still not debated it. What on earth is going on?”

He added: “The fundamental problem is this has been regarded as just something for Scotland but it’s for the whole of the United Kingdom and the issues and what people say about it has implications for the whole of the United Kingdom.

“It’s time England woke up and that we, as partners in the United Kingdom, work out how we’re going to move forward and ensure that a reckless decision to break up the United Kingdom is not made in September.”

Alistair Carmichael, the present Scottish secretary, has warned Cameron and cabinet colleagues that the referendum could yet be lost. He is concerned that the polls may not be accurate because nationalists may find it easier to persuade their more motivated supporters to turn out and vote.

He also fears that many undecided voters who blame the Thatcher government for the decline of heavy industry in Scotland will vote yes.

Tory critics are increasingly alarmed by the cross-party anti-independence campaign led by Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, saying it is too negative and lacks momentum.

Crosby is understood to have suggested that the campaign is so feeble that the future of the UK is in doubt.

In a surprising assessment, he is said to have warned that polls giving unionists a strong lead are wrong — and that victory for Salmond in September is not only possible but likely.

Publicly, Crosby emphatically denies that he fears for the future of the union. He said claims about his private views were “not true”.

A source familiar with his concerns insisted, however: “He thinks Salmond will pull it off. He is seriously worried. He really thinks the SNP will do it.”

Darling’s Better Together campaign has focused heavily on the economic risks an independent Scotland would face, including the possibility of not being allowed to keep the pound, a rise in the cost of living and being denied EU membership.

Johnson is among Tory critics who say this is alienating voters, particularly women. A source close to the mayor said: “Boris’s biggest concern is some of the negativity around the messaging.

“He believes that approach is wrong and potentially damaging. His worry is that shouting future of the union. He said claims about his private views were “not true”.

A source familiar with his concerns insisted, however: “He thinks Salmond will pull it off. He is seriously worried. He really thinks the SNP will do it.”

Darling’s Better Together campaign has focused heavily on the economic risks an independent Scotland would face, including the possibility of not being allowed to keep the pound, a rise in the cost of living and being denied EU membership.

Johnson is among Tory critics who say this is alienating voters, particularly women. A source close to the mayor said: “Boris’s biggest concern is some of the negativity around the messaging.

“He believes that approach is wrong and potentially damaging. His worry is that shouting about the negatives of break-up rather than accentuating the positives of union — of which there are many — will actually turn some who are undecided against that union.”

Forsyth, however, condemned “misplaced” briefings by senior Tory colleagues against Darling. The former Scottish secretary said: “Those people who say Alistair is not leading the charge … well, what are they doing?”

Darling’s approval rating of +3 (the proportion who are satisfied minus the proportion who are dissatisfied) trails behind Salmond (+7) and Nicola Sturgeon, the popular deputy first minister (+16). Cameron’s approval rating in Scotland, where the Conservatives have only one MP, is a dismal –28.

A poll this month suggested the yes campaign was closing the gap in the race for referendum votes, cutting the no lead from 19% to 14%, while a recent poll for The Sunday Times put the no lead at nine points. Unionists point out that the SNP came from being well behind Labour in the 2011 Scottish parliament election campaign to win a landslide.

Some political analysts predict that if Scotland chooses independence, voters south of the border might punish Cameron for presiding over the break-up of the union.

In the long term, the loss of 40 Scottish Labour MPs could improve Tory prospects of power at Westminster, but Scottish MPs would not be expected to quit the Commons until 2016 — too late to make a difference to the 2015 general election.

Darling declined to comment.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London