The answer I want to give to the title question is a confident – To a decisive YES vote on September 18th 2014!
That’s what I and any independence supporter is expected to do – be gung ho, celebrate the polls that bode well, attack the methodology, pollsters and those who commissioned the poll when things don’t go so well. Forward to victory! Don’t be deflected! Find increasingly ingenious ways to interpret poll results that don’t suit us until they yield a positive message.
Well, I’ve done my share of that for six years, in arguments, in blogs, on Twitter, on YouTube, in letters to newspapers. Why? Partly to reassure myself, mainly to bolster the morale of the faithful and to encourage the undecided to look deeper into poll results. Such things are legitimate in politics because, rather like the stock exchange, it’s part rational but significantly irrational and emotional, and confidence plays a significant part in success in any endeavour. The hard core of independence supporters will never be persuaded to change their allegiance by a poll, but their energies can be blunted, their enthusiasm dulled, and some may retreat into a blame-the-stupidity-of-the-Scots-electorate mode, and reduce the amount of work they do for the cause.
I’ve been tempted myself to say - “I’ve done enough – they can have my vote on September 18th 2014, but that’s it. Hell mend Scotland if it votes NO…”
But so far, that mood has never lasted, because events have triggered my adrenalin flow, and exasperation, astonishment or even mirth at the latest manifestation of ‘Britishness’, unionism, or the ever-idiotic Better Together spokespersons has driven me back to the grindstone.
So what is the proper attitude to the polls? Saying they don’t matter, the only poll that matters is the ballot box, or perhaps what-we’re-hearing-on-the-doorstep-tells-us-different etc. is a counter-productive reaction.
An opinion poll, conducted by a reputable organisation with sound sampling and interpretation methodology, in its raw data at least, is a vital and valuable snapshot of opinion at a point in time. Like any snapshot, it can be crisp in detail and capture the essence of the moment, or it can be blurry and unrepresentative. And, like any snapshot, those viewing it can offer multiple interpretations of what it means; and in this regard, the psephologists are the art critics of polls and, if we have any sense, we will pay attention to what they say and draw our own conclusions as to what action is necessary to move the next poll in the direction of independence.
The focus tends to be, naturally enough, on the polls that are published, but additionally, all parties conduct private polls for their eyes only, to guide their strategists. On the rare occasions the media get wind of this, commentators generate much synthetic shock that a party should take a poll and not publish the results. This is compounded on occasion by the stupidity of politicians who are unable to resist the temptation to make veiled allusions to such polls, with predictable results – demands that they publish immediately, accompanied by accusations of skulduggery. (There has been one such example recently.)
Here are some of the questions on a straight independence choice asked by pollsters -
Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?
Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should become a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?
Do you agree that Scotland should become a country independent from the rest of the UK?
Would you approve or disapprove of Scotland becoming an independent country?
TNS System 3
Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the UK
Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming an independent country, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom?
POLL RESULTS ASKING THE INDEPENDENCE STRAIGHT CHOICE QUESTION
In April 2005, TNS System 3 found 46% said YES, 39% said NO
In April 2006, same result by YouGov/SNP.
By November 2006 ICM/Telegraph got 52% YES and 35% NO. That might have been an indicator of the 2007 SNP win, then again it might not, because …..
January 2007, four months before the election, YouGov/Channel 4 poll gave 40% YES, 44% NO
Because of these poll – and because of the shock 2007 Holyrood result, unionists were jolted out of their complacency, none more than the supine Scottish Labour Party. “This wisnae meant tae happen, Tony!” bleated a shell-shocked Jack McConnell, and great menacing beasts stirred uneasily in the bowels of the British Establishment.
And so the first historic Scottish Nationalist Government was elected – a minority government, yes, but as a party in power, not as a coalition. And what happened at the next poll?
April 2008 YouGov/the Sun 34% YES, 51% NO
Spooky, or what?
14th January 2012 Survation/Mail on Sunday 26% YES 46% NO.
I hear your cynical cries already - “Ha! Mail on Sunday! and Survation? Who the **** are they?” etc. because the day before we had this -
13th January 2012 ICM/Sunday Telegraph 40% YES 43% NO. Had the electorate flipped overnight – or had the Mail on Sunday just behaved like the Mail on Sunday?
I could go on at length with poll results and interpretation of the mind-bending cross-relationships and implication of other questions to each other, on more powers, and support for remaining in UK, but I won’t, because my interpretations would be that of a layman, not a professional psephologist or political strategist, and would have correspondingly little value.
SELF-DELUSION AND MAGICAL EVENTS
What do we know?
Bluntly, that -
the polls currently show a minority of the Scottish electorate in favour of independence
we have a mountain to climb before September 18th 2014
we must start to see some upward movement in the near future if we are to have any chance of success.
Despite the fact that these three statements are undeniably true, simply to state them is to enough provoke cries of protest, and a range of ingenious interpretations of poll results, brandishing of poll results that were favourable, denial of the validity of poll results that were less favourable, attacks on the media, the pollsters and their allegedly flawed methodologies, and invocation of magical events in the past (the lead-up to the 2011 Holyrood landslide) and magical events in the future (the White Paper).
Bluntly, some independence supporters are going to have to grow up fast, politically and arithmetically, if we’re going to win.
I take comfort in my belief - which I hope to God is well-founded -that this mindset only exists among some of the support, that the SNP and YES strategists are rooted in hard psephological and political realities and can tell a standard deviation from a bull’s arse.
The 2011 result was astonishing, unpredicted by the politicians, but anticipated by the pollsters, albeit late in the day (because the shift in the electorate occurred late in the day), and nobody knows what caused it, although speculation, informed and otherwise, is rife. There is nothing in that past event – an election to a devolved Parliament – that is a reliable indicator to how voters will decide in a referendum of such historical importance, with such enormous constitutional implication as 2014 – except maybe hope …
It’s in the past, and the past is not a reliable guide to the future in politics.
The White Paper is clearly of enormous significance. It offers a huge opportunity for the independence argument, but also represents a huge threat to it. The formidable forces of the British Establishment, the monarchy (yes, the monarchy – the Queen has already pinned her colours to the mast), the UK Government, the UK Civil Service, the compliant media and press, the military/industrial complex, the nuclear industry - and shadowy overseas interests - are already preparing their attack plans.
The White Paper will be leaked in part (inevitable, leaving aside the presence of spooks in the Scottish Government!) and will be subject to a dissection and onslaught against it that has rarely, if ever, been seen in British politics.
The Scottish electorate in the main will not read it (how many of you have ever bought or read a white paper?) and will be offered partisan and simplistic headlines, mainly hostile.
The Scottish Government and YES Campaign will be unable to match that in volume and coverage, and won’t want to match it in virulence and misrepresentation.
They will therefore be totally reliant on the brevity, quality and originality of their message, delivered in the main online and through volunteers, and with luck, through the national public service broadcaster - the BBC - if the independence movement can stop trying to alienate and antagonise every last journalist, presenter and programme editor in the entire corporation.
CLOSING – AND HOPE!
There are really only three key questions as a guide to action for the time remaining till the referendum -
1. How many Nos and Don’t knows can be shifted to YES?
2. What are the arguments that will shift them and how can they be focused and targeted on the various demographics and interest groups?
3. How are the frustrated pro-union devo-maxers going to divide, denied their second question and faced with a polarised choice – YES or NO?
What I know to be true is that the vital and dedicated workers on the pavements, in the car parks and public places, at the letter boxes and on the doorsteps - and the less-important but still relevant backroom contributors such as me - are just getting on with spreading the message of independence as best they can to the widest possible audience they can reach.