x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Fear of the unknown fuels Scotland’s independence debate

Is there hope for the Yes Scotland campaign? Perhaps.

referendum

The relief from Scotland’s pro-independence campaigners was palpable. On September 2, a poll suggested that the people of Scotland were finally turning towards voting for independence. It may have given support for leaving the United Kingdom a slender lead of just one point – but it was a lead nonetheless. No sooner had it been published that another survey followed two days later, which indicated that over a quarter of Scots were undecided on the issue.

On September 18, the Scottish Parliament indulged in a predictably polarised debate on independence to mark exactly one year until Scots make the biggest decision of their political lives: whether to leave a union that has lasted for more than 300 years or whether to remain within its ageing political structures. For staunch unionists, the thought of breaking from the UK is the stuff of nightmares. For paid-up nationalists the thought of staying equally so.

Fought publicly over Scotland’s airwaves and in its print media, the battle for the political future of this nation has been unrelenting. Insults have been traded, claims by each side have been rubbished (to put it lightly) by the other.

Aided by an overwhelmingly pro-union Scottish press, the Better Together campaign has predicted everything from financial ruin (Scotland would, they say, be barred from continuing with the pound by the remainder of the UK) to European exclusion (Scotland would, they add, effectively assume the status of pariah with a whole host of European countries standing-by to block its entry into a European Union of which it has been a part for decades), pro-union campaigners have been warning against this nation of 5.2m of going it alone in an uncertain world.

On the other side of the debate unabashed positivity is the name of the game – with Scotland’s formidable first minister, Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Parliament’s nationalist government, and whose majority victory in the May 2011 Scottish Parliament election secured his party’s right to hold the referendum in the first place, leading the charge.

Promising a Scotland that would not be forced to fight illegal wars and one that is free of nuclear weapons, Mr Salmond has flagged up what is, for many, a very appealing view of an independent Scotland, even if many other elements stray into the quixotic.

Yet, the lion’s share of polls continue to show a majority of Scots are against independence roughly to the tune of 60/40. It is clear that, as things stand, the forces of independence are not only taking on a conservative Scottish public for whom such stories of impending doom from the pro-union camp appear to resonate, but one that is also largely apathetic towards major constitutional change.

While polls suggest that Scots are generally more likely to identify their national identity as Scottish rather than British – Scotland is, after all, a proud nation with its own distinct national institutions and international sports teams (however struggling) – many treat the security of the UK with ambivalence: not so in love as to launch a desperate defence of a 300-year-old union now under real threat, but not yet inclined to let their “Britishness” go by the wayside.

Indeed, independence may be the talk of the national media and of Scotland’s political classes – but go into a Glasgow nightspot and the chatter is less of Scotland’s most historic decision in three centuries, and more of Celtic’s prospects in the UEFA Champions League. Scots need a tangible reason to leave the union, but so far, none seem forthcoming. Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

So, is there hope for the Yes Scotland campaign? Perhaps.

They arguably have their greatest weapon in Mr Salmond, a man who has already shaken the very foundations of the union and who, in 2011, pulled off what many learned pollsters thought impossible in the Scottish Parliament’s proportional system – a majority victory.

Depressing unrelenting negativity could indeed win it for the union – advocates of the UK are only too aware that, as far as the question of independence is concerned, Scots fear uncertainty above all else.

But, should the polls tighten as Scots are finally forced to make a decision in those crucial weeks before the referendum, then a bit of positivity could be all that it takes to tip the balance in the nationalists’ favour.

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics

On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi