Future of the Union: Confidence rises and complacency fades

Independence supporters at a rally outside the Yes Scotland office in Glasgow yesterday. The decentralised movement has long claimed to be winning the ‘ground war’ © EPA

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Yes: Strategy was always to build support for late surge

The weekend’s YouGov survey that found Scotland’s independence campaign had edged ahead was almost universally described as a “shock poll”. But to Step­hen Noon, Yes Scotland’s chief strategist, it was not even much of a surprise.

The Yes campaign’s whole strategy has been designed to create a late swelling of support based on one-to-one canvassing and social media, Mr Noon claims. “It’s the groundswell – it’s no more than what we would hope to achieve,” he says in an interview at Yes Scotland’s headquarters on Hope Street in Glasgow.

“Where we are in the polls reflects where we are in terms of that strategy . . . We are seeing the impact of the grassroots conversations people are having with friends and families.”

Not that Yes strategists are ready to declare victory. The YouGov poll and others showing a statistical dead heat are likely to galvanise pro-union support. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, insists the independence campaign is still the underdog.

But the rise in support so close to the vote, due on September 18, gives serious credibility to Yes Scotland organisers’ longstanding claims that what has become a broad-based and decentralised movement is winning the “ground war”.

At the Hope Street headquarters, a semi-basement office only a few minutes’ walk from the base of the rival Better Together group, Yes Scotland staff orchestrate social media campaigns, talk to journalists and organise the supply badges, posters and arguments to activists. But the main work is done in dozens of temporary offices and pop-up, high-street campaign bases around Scotland.

Mr Noon says the aim is to reach the point where undecideds and “soft Nos” are hearing arguments for independence “reflected” back at them from their own social networks, real and virtual. “We can create mood music [and] provide information that supports conversations,” he says. “But a Yes activist speaking to their best friend or to their cousin is the most powerful voice. It is way more powerful than anything we can say.”

With the focus on the ground war, Yes strategists say there is little reason to alter the overall messages of the campaign dramatically. Instead, it will be narrowed to a few core points as the referendum nears.

Among the central arguments are that Scotland has the economic strength for independence, that the people who live in the country would do the best job of running it and that independence would end rule by a distant, Conservative-dominated Westminster.

Yes Scotland will also stress the risk, as its members see it, that UK austerity and privatisation policies will pose to Scotland’s NHS, and argue that pro-union parties’ promises of more devolution for the Scottish parliament will not include any significant job-creating powers.

“It’s steady as she goes,” says a Yes strategist.

At a Yes office in Glasgow’s Kelvin constituency, the mood is upbeat. The office, in a housing estate block, has been operating for more than a year and is now open from 10am to 8pm. Graeme Sneddon, 22, a lead organiser for youth wing Generation Yes, says there are 20 to 30 activists out canvassing in the area.

With sunny confidence, he says he is sure many more voters can be ­won over. “There is no such thing as a No voter,” he quotes a fellow activist as saying. “Just voters who haven’t been persuaded to vote Yes yet.”

No: Every vote counts for fractious campaign

Is it the hazy sunshine over Edinburgh’s New Town or plain self-delusion? Whatever it is, those involved in the often fractious and chaotic campaign to save the 307-year-old United Kingdom remain confident they are on course for victory – whatever the polls say.

“We will win this referendum next week,” declares Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, to a small group of supporters in the affluent Stockbridge district. Those around him simply do not believe the polls.

“We are all a bit scared,” says Trevor Davies, a retired professor at Glasgow university who has been campaigning across Edinburgh. “But the evidence on the ground doesn’t say what the polls are saying.” Those polls put the two sides neck and neck; one at the weekend showed the Yes side ahead. Better Together insiders say they contacted 10,000 people last weekend and there was nothing to suggest that Labour supporters – the key swing voters in this contest – are moving in droves to the independence cause. “I’m not sure it’s happening,” said one senior No campaigner. “In fact it’s not happening.”

Mr Darling admitted, however, that every vote will count and any possible complacency should have been swept away by a YouGov poll last weekend that gave the Yes side a 51/49 lead – the first major poll to suggest that Scotland could be about to leave the UK.

The poll put the spotlight on a cross-party No campaign beset by internal divisions between Labour, which dominates it, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who also support the union. “Of course it can’t be cohesive,” says one Labour campaigner. “It’s made up of three parties that hate each other.”

The chaos was illustrated at the weekend when Chancellor George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor, said the “clock was ticking” on the granting of new powers to the Scottish parliament in the event of a No vote; a few minutes later Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Scottish secretary, said there was “nothing new” about it.

On Monday there was confusion in Edinburgh about how a new “process” for further devolution to the Holyrood parliament would be announced and by whom. “It was oversold as an idea,” says one No campaign leader. “And it doesn’t swing votes anyway.” Later in the day, former prime minister Gordon Brown said work would begin on fresh devolution legislation for Scotland the day after the referendum. Mr Brown pledged a policy paper would be drawn up in November and draft laws produced around January 25, though it was not clear whether legislation on more constitutional change could be enacted before next May’s general election.

As Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, remarked, it smacked of “panic” for the No campaign to be talking up new powers for the Scottish parliament at this late stage, especially after hundreds of thousands of voters had already cast postal ballots ahead of next week’s referendum. “Some of these people need to get a grip,” said one senior MP involved in the campaign. “Once this campaign is over, bookshelves will heave with tomes on mistakes made along the way.” Apart from a lack of co-ordination between the three main parties campaigning for a No, the Labour party has hardly been a model of unity.

One Labour MP has criticised a lack of co-operation between the party at Westminster and Scottish Labour. When Ed Miliband promised last week that 100 of his MPs would travel north to campaign, that amounted to less than half of his parliamentary party.

Mr Brown is now engaged in a whirlwind of activity to “save the union” after initially being virtually invisible in the campaign – his critics in the party say he was piqued because he was not asked to play a more prominent role from the outset.

Others have complained that the No camp has not presented an aggressively positive case for the union – an omission Jim Murphy, a pugnacious Labour MP, has tried to address on his tour of 100 streets in 100 days. Mr Murphy arrived in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket on Monday afternoon armed with two Irn Bru drinks crates and a microphone, revelling in verbal combat with Yes campaigners – his tour was briefly interrupted earlier this month after he was pelted with eggs.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to be positive when you’re asking people to vote No,” said Sheila Cannell, a former director of Edinburgh university’s library, who watched in admiration Mr Murphy’s appeal to the “quiet patriotic majority”.

It is that “quiet” majority that Mr Murphy, Mr Darling and the other No campaigners believe will eventually speak out on September 18 and save the union. If they are wrong, the blame game, already rumbling beneath the surface, will erupt into the open.

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