I watched Alex Salmond’s keynote speech yesterday. Assured and clear was my initial reaction, low on bombast and keeping to a theme that Scotland will be a more equal society with independence.
We are now entering the real campaign where each side is setting out its stall and the manoeuvring has begun in earnest.
Immediately after the speech, BBC Scotland’s resident psephologist (voting expert to you and me) set about building up the mountain that he insisted the Yes campaign have to climb. Professor John Curtice’s analysis can be dismissed; projecting current polling onto a ballot to be held two years hence is unwise to say the least.
Indeed, within 24 hours of Professor Curtice claiming support for independence was going down, a poll for the Sunday Times showed it at 37%, with a majority saying they will vote Yes should the Tories look like they might win the next UK General election.
The reality of the situation is that until voters know what they are being asked to vote on then polls are meaningless. Voters right now have no idea what No means, but Salmond is slowly setting the narrative for what Yes will mean and the threat, as he sees it, posed by a No vote.
Alex Salmond’s strategy is clear, the choice facing Scots is between hope and no hope, a guarantee of more austerity versus the possibility of prosperity. This is the platform on which the Yes campaign will be launched – we take control or we take the consequences.
The First Minister seized on Labour’s recent lurch to the right by highlighting the threat to universal benefits that a continuation of the status quo would bring.
Labour have been shoehorned into an alliance with the Conservatives due to their ‘Union at all costs’ position. The party of socialism has ditched the poor and vulnerable for a continuation of Westminster privilege, is Salmond’s message.
A gift for the Yes campaign was Johann Lamont’s attack on the three Ps. Lamont’s insistence that Scotland’s pensioners, patients and pupils want “something for nothing” has allowed Salmond to construct a very clear ‘them and us’ narrative.
Free Prescriptions versus Costly Trident, Nuclear Waste or Green Energy, Tory Austerity versus Human Decency – these choices will be hammered home over the next 24 months.
It will dominate the pro-independence strategy.
The No campaign has established its own narrative, which is – to be fair – not exclusively negative, but only just. Alistair Darling has dusted down the ‘world influence’ line and added the argument that we have greater protection by sharing risks as part of the wider UK.
However the anti-independence parties are also heavily reliant on the ‘Britishness brand’ connecting with Scots in the same way as it connects with those in England. This is risky and a backlash is a distinct possibility if Scots tire of this Union Jackery as Olympic memory fades.
As expected with the pro-Union camp, there is also a very healthy dose of scaremongering. The EU membership debate will continue until Brussels sees sense and clarifies the situation. Unionism thrives on a vacuum and any doubt will be seized on by the No campaign.
The economy looms large and we already see the strategy of the No campaign which has been cleverly muddying the fiscal waters over Scotland’s contribution to the UK Treasury. The claim that Scotland is in deficit is true of course, but our deficit is less than that of the UK. We contribute more into the cash pot than we get back.
However with a Scottish media pretty much certain to amplify these anti-independence claims, the Yes campaign will have a fight on their hands trying to explain national deficits and explain why Scotland is in better shape.
Much will also depend on how parties are perceived in the coming two years.
The SNP are still viewed positively by the Scottish electorate, with Salmond’s approval ratings remaining high. Bizarrely, and this is where Professor Curtice is correct, that firm support is not reflected in independence support which continues to fluctuate.
Labour in Scotland is a mess. It has been reduced to nothing more than a lobbying group for a pro-Union alliance.
Labour in the rest of the UK is ahead of the Tories, but Ed Miliband remains a liability. Underlining Labour’s move to the right was the incredible sight of Miliband being booed at yesterday’s anti-austerity TUC protest march. Miliband will play little part in the referendum debate, he lacks charisma and does not come across well at all.
The Tories are currently in meltdown and the Lib Dems are now being outpolled by UKIP – 8% against 12% according to the latest survey. Ming Campbell’s review of devolution has nowhere to go unless he can persuade Labour or the Tories to embrace his proposals.
The No campaign have an over reliance on politicians and both Alistair Darling and Anas Sarwar struggled in their respective media appearances.
Moving away from the politicians, the Yes Scotland team have an advantage in having the excellent Blair Jenkins fronting their campaign. Mr Jenkins’ profile increased this weekend and he impressed with his several appearances on discussion and debate programmes.
There is a feeling that things are just starting to move and that the lead built up over the summer months by the pro-Union camp has now peaked.
Independence supporters aren’t complacent, there have been too many hard knocks on the road towards their ultimate goal. It’s going to be a fascinating next few months as we enter 2013 – the penultimate year before the biggest vote in Scottish history.