Apparently, there are lots of people out there still seeking information about the consequences of voting yes or no in the independence referendum. In fact, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings published last week, the longer the referendum campaign goes on, the less informed people feel and the more unsure they are of how they’ll vote.
Which is astonishing really. Particularly when you consider that since the start of 2014 we have been deluged with papers, speeches and opinions, most of it coming from the No camp. Better Together appears to be working to achieve a barrage effect: by keeping up a constant bombardment of artillery fire, the other side won’t even have time to get their weapons loaded. Yet, it would seem that the electorate is becoming used to the ack-ack of another big set-piece speech, another UK government paper, another finger-pointing, doom laden portentous observation. They are effectively putting their fingers in their ears and hoping it will all go away.
What the bombast does show is that Better Together has many units upon which to call to fight its air war. Its own campaign and myriad groupings; the three main political parties which form its backbone; the UK Government and its battalions of civil servants; some significant public figures, commentators, even the odd celebrity; and of course, a media willing to splash every banal announcement as though the day of reckoning had arrived. It helps that Better Together has sufficient big names (in the view of the media at least) that in one day it can blanket the news agenda with its sound and fury.
By contrast, the armoury in Yes Scotland seems pretty thin. Aside from the key protagonists in the Scottish Government – leading SNP figures – who and what have we seen out there on the frontline in recent weeks? Zilch from any of the other parties in the Yes camp, a welcome book launch offering an alternative vision from Jim Sillars, re-emerging onto the Scottish political scene for one last big push, smatterings from other vision-makers such as Radical Independence and the Common Weal. But where is Yes Scotland? There is no sense of its imprint on any of this, nor of its being the central axis for co-ordinating efforts to counter the air attacks with a few of its own.
The focus for Yes Scotland appears to be at grassroots level, with community activism and small conversations and public meetings key. The Yes camp is also relying heavily on Scotland’s Future to provide the answers people seek on every eventuality in the run up to and immediate aftermath of independence. What it means is that this campaign is being fought in two different arenas, which makes the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s findings even more fascinating. Whose approach is winning?
You could argue no-one’s. The second most interesting finding is that the referendum campaign appears focused on issues that voters are not very bothered about: the issues dominating the guerilla warfare between the two camps are ones that many voters aren’t prepared to go to war for. EU membership, welfare and even nationhood are not the big players the headlines would suggest. So why are both camps devoting so much ammunition to them?
Indeed, worryingly for Yes Scotland and the SNP, some of its narrative appears to be running counter to the trend of public opinion in Scotland. Where the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has mapped trends in opinion, it is that fewer now support staying in the EU or at least wish to see reform. Many Scots appear to support welfare reform – or at least, been captivated by the rhetoric peddled by first Labour and now Conservative-Liberal Democrat governments about the cushiness of benefits.
We might warm to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon for the rest of the UK, of creating a fairer society, but drill down into the detail and our opinions do not differ hugely from prevailing opinion elsewhere on these islands. And if that creates a problem for those in the Yes camp’s narrative, it also suggests that Labour’s theme of all one big left-leaning family together doesn’t exactly chime either.
So eight months to go, eighteen months in and everyone on both sides might as well have stayed in bed. Or at least, that’s the impression given by this survey. The shift is not from no to yes or even yes to no, but of yes and no becoming more fluid. As the survey suggests, those occupying the neutral zone are not just the usual suspects of never votes and won’t vote. They do appear to be genuinely undecided and looking for more information: just not on what they are currently being given.
There are key target groups in the undecided camp – women, 25 to 44 year olds, C2s – and what they want to know more about is the money. Not the currency, not revenues, not big numbers, but the rather more prosaic issue of what’s in it for me and mine.
This much we have always known, so why is the debate not coming down into the trenches where voters want it to be fought? It is remarkable to think that the princely sum of £500 could swing the referendum vote either way. Those who earn well above the average wage may scoff but clearly £500 is still considered to be a big enough amount of money by many in Scotland to symbolise a gain in real terms. This fact in itself should stop us all in our tracks – there are enough people in Scotland who think that £500 is a big enough sum to change their lives forever and to prompt them to want to change their lives forever.
People don’t want answers to the big economic questions, they want it explained in terms that are meaningful and indeed, personal to their households. Will I still have my job? How much will I earn? Will I pay more tax? How will independence affect my household finances? How much will a bottle of wine cost? How much will it cost to run a car?
This is where Yes needs to take the debate and to open up two fronts. First, the Scottish Government needs to ensure the public know that with the limited powers it has, it is responsible for staving off the worst effects of the financial crisis, but it also needs to mimic Labour’s UK cost of living crisis campaign, pointing the finger squarely at the UK Government and the worst excesses of its brand of economic recovery for people feeling pain and bearing the brunt. High energy prices, high food bills, frozen wages, hidden taxes – all of it is Westminster’s fault. You can only be positive if there is a negative reference point, after all.
At the same time, it needs to show, budgetary style, how independence and making different choices with all the fiscal levers available would make a difference. What does £500 better off look like to families in different circumstances and how will independence make that happen? Nicola Sturgeon’s focus yesterday at the Scottish Women’s Convention on how childcare will benefit young parents and of how a living wage will help women in particular, is good stuff. But more needs to be done.
There are signs that the long gameplan for Yes is working, that despite the noise and fury of the naysayers, the focus on momentum rather than a Eureka moment as Stephen Noon’s excellent article in Scotland on Sunday outlines, is starting to turn votes. It is reassuring that when pushed, many don’t knows are more inclined to vote yes, but at some point, Yes needs to start moving people from their holding position and into departure mode. They need to feel that the big step is worth taking and all they need to feel better off by is £500.
The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings reinforce much of what we already know – and which both Yes and No camps will know in forensic detail, in terms of where the persuadables lie in this debate. Better Together appears to think that it just needs to beat those inching their way from no to yes back; Yes Scotland needs to entice them across no man’s land. Showing them the money might well be the key to doing so.