Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond has a year to climb a mountain scaled by former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson almost four decades ago.
On this day next year, voters in Scotland will decide whether to pursue independence in the most important referendum since the 1975 plebiscite on U.K. membership of what is now the European Union. Like Wilson, who wanted Britain to stay in the Brussels-led bloc and eventually prevailed in the vote, Salmond has to turn opinion with no major pollster predicting a win.
“Wilson’s trick was to say anything will be better than what we have now,” said Matt Qvortrup, a senior researcher at Cranfield University who has written a history of referendums. “They have to hold their nerve and be cool about being behind and follow a strategy, which is what Wilson did.”
The “yes” campaigners led by Salmond are tasked with convincing an electorate that gave his Scottish National Party an unprecedented majority in Edinburgh’s semi-autonomous legislature though hasn’t warmed to full independence. The latest polls show they need to at least win over the swathe of people who say they are undecided.
Fifty-two percent of Scotland’s electorate want to remain part of the U.K., while 32 percent favor breaking away, a YouGov Plc poll for the Times newspaper published today found.
The people who haven’t made up their minds made up 13 percent of respondents, compared with 16 percent in a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times newspaper on Sept. 15 and 28 percent in a TNS BRMB survey published on Sept. 4, which was a jump from 19 percent. No margin of error was given for the polls. YouGov questioned 1,139 Scottish adults from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16.
“The ‘yes’ vote has been about 30 percent for the past 20 years,” said Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University. “It’s quite remarkable given the serious campaign has been going on for the past six months. A clear victory for the ‘yes’ side looks unlikely.”
After ousting the Labour Party in 2007’s Scottish elections and then gaining an outright majority four years later, the SNP set up the vote on creating Europe’s newest state, albeit one with the pound, Queen Elizabeth II as its head and the Bank of England still as the lender of last resort.
Salmond’s message is that he and the SNP can run Scotland from Edinburgh better than Prime Minister David Cameron’s government can from London, investing more in local infrastructure projects, keeping higher education free and creating funds to help mitigate cuts to social spending.
Cameron and his Conservative Party, or Tories, want to keep the 306-year-old union with Scotland, as does the Labour opposition. The “Better Together” campaign, which says Scotland is better off as part of a larger country with more international clout, is fronted by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling.
One option for Salmond is to play “the Tory England card,” ahead of the U.K. general election in 2015, according to YouGov President Peter Kellner. Cranfield academic Qvortrup, writing in the Scotsman newspaper today, referred to a “vilification strategy” being “more obvious and more effective.”
The divisions were reflected last week in Edinburgh, where, along with Glasgow, polls have shown more people are undecided than in other parts of Scotland. The two cities make up more than a fifth of the country’s 5.2 million population.
“I like the idea of being independent, I just haven’t made my mind up,” said Ricky Baillie, 32, co-owner of the Papii cafe in Edinburgh and a father of two children under three.
For Sarah Wilson, 38, an office worker, the vote is also about nationality. “I’m not for independence because I feel British,” she said. “I mean I feel Scottish too, but I’ve got English in-laws and Irish relatives.”
There have been 49 independence referendums worldwide, both official and unofficial, according to research by Qvortrup. They range from Texas, Tennessee and Virginia in 1861 to Quebec in 1980 and the Baltic states and Quebec again in the 1990s. Based on votes held in democratic countries since World War II, the average “yes” vote is 62 percent, the study shows.
One issue for the SNP is the recovering U.K. economy. Gross domestic product rose 0.7 percent in the second quarter and reports suggest growth is gaining traction.
Unemployment unexpectedly fell to 7.7 percent between May and July and surveys of purchasing managers showed services and construction expanding at their fastest pace since the financial crisis amid housing boom. The government this week sold a 6 percent stake in Lloyds Banking Group Plc, one of the lenders bailed out in the financial crisis.
“If the economy is bad, then people are more likely to vote ‘yes,’ but if you see things picking up a little bit then people will feel there’s no need to risk it,” Qvortrup said in a telephone interview. “It’s more for the heart strings: what price will you pay for being Scottish.”
A referendum in Scotland in 1997 backed the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, creating the government and legislature in Edinburgh responsible for such things as transport, health, the legal system and education. The U.K. Parliament in London retained power over the broader economy, the budget and foreign policy.
Britons voted in June 1975 on whether to ratify their membership of the European Economic Community, which the country had joined in 1973. Wilson, Salmond’s political hero, according to a 2010 biography of the Scottish leader by David Torrance, turned a deficit in the polls to a 67 percent vote in favor.
The BBC called it a “bruising campaign” involving a rebellion within Wilson’s Labour Party as unions opposed to membership faced off with the main business lobby.
“Wilson had more of a mountain to climb, so Salmond can take heart from that,” said Qvortrup. “He has to be as bold as Wilson and as disciplined in his message. It’s much more difficult to call than an election.”