Turnout in tomorrow’s Scottish independence referendum could be as high as 97%. The country’s 4.5 million voters will (if they haven’t already done so by postal vote) be taking part in a historic ballot that will affect all 60 million people in the United Kingdom.
I think the result will be victory for the No campaign. Despite a heroic narrowing of the gap in public opinion - with huge credit for this owed to the UK’s most able politician, Alex Salmond - a majority of the Scottish public will vote to continue the Union. However, while only Scotland goes to the polls, the referendum campaign has been played out across the whole of the UK’s media. The relative narrowness of the result, plus the UK-wide coverage, adds up to a real problem for the future of the Union. Here’s why.
On 22 August last year, Better Together enjoyed a commanding 30 point lead according to YouGov. Unsurprisingly, nobody was criticising the negativity of the No campaign back then. In making the case for keeping the status quo, the strategy was right: keep injecting uncertainty into the debate as it keeps Alex Salmond on the back foot and puts voters off the idea of voting for change.
If there was a fault with this strategy it was that those constant injections meant part of the body politic built up an immunity to them. But as I mentioned above, these arguments were being broadcast to the whole of the UK, not just Scotland. People in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were hearing that Scots shouldn’t vote to leave because of, among other things, an independent Scotland wouldn’t have pound sterling as its currency. Any other feasible scenario for a currency would mean no control over interest rates (a big lever for controlling inflation gone) and worst of all not having the Bank of England as your lender of last resort. Scotland might even have to join the Euro. Suddenly the Yes/No question only seems to have one viable answer.
Would independence really be worth that kind of a price? When you consider how sweet Scotland has it, you do have to wonder whether it’s worth voting for. At the moment Scotland already enjoys its own Parliament which controls huge areas of domestic policy – health, education, justice. So, for instance, it can vote so that its university students don’t pay fees. Better yet, it gets a huge subsidy from the rest of the UK (or more accurately, England) to pay for such policies via the Barnett Formula. Treasury figures show this means a person in Scotland has almost 20% more spent on them than a person in England, and it costs £8.7 billion a year to do this. To cap it off, its 59 MPs can still go to Westminster and vote on matters that only affect England. Like university fees. This measure was only passed with the votes of Scottish MPs.
The whole point of devolution to Scotland was that Scots thought it was bloody outrageous that the effing Tories (to borrow a phrase) could pass laws affecting them without being accountable to Scottish voters. And yet for some reason it’s not so bloody outrageous for Scottish MPs to do exactly the same thing to English voters.
So let’s recap the status quo. A strong, stable currency. A central bank. Its own Parliament. A huge subsidy. Scottish identity thriving within the Union. Hello, HELLO? Why would you give this up? Don’t forget Scotland can also punch above its weight internationally as part of Britain. It enjoys thousands of jobs from shipbuilding (instead of Portsmouth) and the nuclear industry that it certainly wouldn’t have as an independent nation. The No campaign being 30 points ahead, on this backdrop, seems reasonable given the no-brainer of a decision at hand.
That’s why the turnaround in public opinion in Scotland has been so remarkable – and so damaging. For a whole year YouGov’s polling found consistent results, with the No campaign in the 50s, Yes registering in the mid 30s and undecideds in the mid to low teens. Even on 7 August this year, YouGov found the same old story - 55:35:11. This 12 months of consistent findings meant the poll on 1 September was a bombshell: Yes had clawed back to within 6 points of No. The poll on 5 September finding Yes actually in the lead 47-45 was a disaster.
That’s why the referendum campaign has so badly damaged the Union. The arguments for staying are overwhelming, and yet the result won’t be. Further devolution and the continuation of the Scottish subsidy will only make matters worse. Despite a No vote, the clock is ticking for the end of the Union. If one of the four main political parties wakes up to this first, there is a huge opportunity for them.
The announcement this morning of Douglas Carswell’s decision to resign from Parliament and defect from the Conservative Party to UKIP has thrown up a by-election in extraordinary circumstances.
Carswell was elected with a thumping 12,000 majority in 2010 for the newly-formed constituency of Clacton. Proudly rebellious yet thoughtful too, he had surprised everyone in January by telling the Spectator that he’d given up his membership of the awkward squad – because the Conservative’s policy on Europe was what eurosceptics like him wanted and it was time to fall in line:
“We’ve got what we want. Your tactics in Parliament should support your strategy. Instead I’m a little bit dismayed that sometimes the tactics adopted by people who feel as strongly about Europe as I do undermine the strategy… the in-out referendum offered by Cameron in his Bloomberg speech was an absolutely key moment. Since then I’ve found my break button, my pause button. I think we all need to find our break button, our pause button.”
Seven months later he has been confirmed as the UKIP candidate in a parliamentary by-election that no-one saw coming. Not even the UKIP candidate.
Roger Lord was elected to Essex County Council for UKIP in May last year. Having been selected as the parliamentary candidate he found out about Carswell’s defection and the by-election at the same time as everyone else. Politics is a cruel game at the best of times, but to hear that you’ve been dumped as a candidate via a curt statement from a UKIP official whilst giving a live radio interview will no doubt leave a sour taste in the mouth. Not just for Lord but for anyone who has spent time with him delivering leaflets in the rain and knocking on doors in the cold, for UKIP, against Douglas Carswell.
Clacton as a constituency battleground is as difficult to read as Carswell himself. The huge Conservative majority mentioned above will be due, in some part, to the man who has just joined the other side. Carswell has written on a number of occasions about the right way to rebuild party membership and has been successful following his own methods. His Association Chairman told Radio 5 Live today that the local party had retained membership despite the unhappiness caused by the Same Sex Marriage Bill and in fact members and activists had increased since 2010. Carswell will be leaving behind the network he was instrumental in building and walking into one he has helped to disrupt.
Local election results paint a colourful picture. 2011 saw all 60 seats on Tendring District Council up for grabs, of which 38 fall within Clacton parliamentary constituency. 20 went to the Conservatives, four to Labour and one to the Lib Dems but the remaining 13 went to a smattering of independents and two local residents’ parties. County Council elections in 2013 saw UKIP added to the composition in the form of Cllr Lord. At the European elections, the votes in the Tendring Council area saw just under 19,400 people plumping for purple against just 9,981 picking blue. It’s anyone’s guess whether there's a trend towards UKIP or they were only in fashion for the European elections.
A shorter campaign will suit the Conservatives who proved in Newark how effectively Central Office can mobilise to get boots on the ground. A longer one will be preferable to UKIP who, although not slow to manoeuvre will nonetheless be grateful for the chance to fill airwaves with Farage and UKIP for the next five weeks.
It's anyone's game, Clacton.
Hat-tip to @wallaceme for the Audioboo clip