The Scottish National party’s unexpected election triumph in 2011 paved the way for next month’s referendum – and to independence campaigners it shows that their attempt to take Scotland out of the UK can still succeed.
Some commentators are already writing off the Yes campaign, which is trailing in all opinion polls with just a month to go.
But supporters insist the 2011 campaign that gave the SNP an unprecedented majority in the Scottish parliament shows that pollsters are fallible, and that a similar upset could be looming.
Angus Robertson, the SNP MP for Moray in Westminster, who ran the 2011 campaign, says it demonstrated the effectiveness of on-the-ground persuasion that is at the core of the Yes movement’s strategy.
“What was learnt in 2011 was that the greatest impact on any voter will be made by fellow family members, friends and acquaintances -- which is very far removed from the ‘air war’ being pursued by the No campaign,” Mr Robertson said.
“There are significant signs of success for the Yes campaign being reported from around the country.”
The 2011 victory marked an extraordinary turnround. Less than two months before the May vote, a TNS BMRB poll for the Daily Record newspaper found 44 per cent of committed voters were backing Labour, compared with 29 per cent for the SNP.
On election day, the SNP won 45 per cent of the constituency vote and 44 per cent for regional list seats, enough to secure it a majority in the Scottish parliament – a result the opinion polls did not forecast and which many experts thought was electorally impossible.
Memories of this comeback victory are now a key source of encouragement for nationalist campaigners. Many insist that the gloomy picture painted by current surveys is not reflected in their own experience on voters’ doorsteps.
Psephologists insist the Yes campaign can take only limited comfort from the lessons of 2011. Opinion polls were not as wide of the mark as independence campaigners think, they say, while a referendum is very different from a parliamentary election.
Tom Costley, head of TNS Scotland, says it is too soon to declare a No victory. TNS’s latest poll found that 38 per cent of committed voters planned to back independence next month, compared with 46 per cent who would vote to stay in the UK. This is a clear gap but, when margins of error are taken into account, it could yet be bridged.
Mr Costley notes, however, that by the same stage of the 2011 election campaign, his and other companies were showing SNP progress, and by its final weeks were forecasting a nationalist victory – though not of the scale achieved.
By contrast, there is little sign so far that the Yes camp is making significant headway among the 16 per cent of people who say they will vote but remain undecided. “For Yes to catch up they would need to be getting almost all of the ‘don’t knows’ who are deciding,” Mr Costley said. “There’s no evidence of that sort of momentum.”
It may also prove more difficult to shift opinion on independence in a short period than it was to win over Labour supporters to the SNP, which had won widespread praise for its performance as a minority administration since 2007.
Nationalists say the much larger turnout expected for the referendum could be making it more difficult for pollsters to detect the progress being made by the Yes campaign.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, expects a record 80 per cent of voters to cast a ballot on September 18.
“Many of the people who will be voting will be people who are not touched by opinion polls,” Mr Salmond told an Edinburgh book festival audience this month. “I think that’s going to be a major factor.”
Many analysts say the Yes side still needs some form of big “game-changer” to reach a majority – particularly since Mr Salmond’s underwhelming performance in a recent televised debate with Alistair Darling, leader of the pro-union Better Together campaign.
A key factor in shifting opinion in 2011 was a woeful campaign by the Labour party and declining confidence in its Scottish leader, Iain Gray, who at one point was caught on camera seeking refuge from rowdy protesters in a Subway sandwich shop.
“You can turn around opinion if your opponents foul up,” said John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “So far, Better Together has not done so.”