The Herald. September 3, 2014.
An opinion poll isn't often a scene of carnage, absolute or otherwise, but if your lead has dropped from 22 points to six in barely a month you can count yourself a bloodied casualty. This week, the Better Together campaign is among the walked wounded.
Its members are brave little soldiers, no doubt, and will go on saying that a lead is still a lead, that only one poll matters, or that the 1995 Quebec referendum followed the same pattern. All true. The fact remains that Better Together is bleeding support. In a long campaign its activists have succeeded only in losing support for the cause of Union.
This is a big deal, obviously enough, for Scotland. The YouGov poll showing a six point gap (excluding the undecided) confirms the findings of the most recent survey by Survation. The former has not specialised in uncovering good news for Yes. Now the margin of error becomes relevant, not to mention the ability of pollsters to capture the public mood in a plebiscite for which a turn-out without precedent is expected.
For students of these things, a test of received wisdom is taking place. A genuinely popular campaign has run up against a technocratic, top-down effort employing all of the thoroughly modern methods familiar to anyone who knows anything about Quebec, or North American politics. We know one part of the story. If 16 points can be whittled away in four weeks, can 6 per cent survive for a fortnight?
For Scots, the importance of these things no longer needs to be explained. No one, on either side, is in any doubt that September 18 means for them and for Britain. Yet even as the YouGov findings were being celebrated or mourned, according to taste, the Financial Times was reporting that the London government “has no contingency plans” for a Yes vote. David Cameron's spokesman told reporters, straightforwardly, that no such work is being undertaken.
The statement can be dismissed as nonsensical. What do we – and that would be all of us – pay civil servants for? In previous referendums preparatory work was a matter of routine on the simple grounds of common sense. It would be bizarre and criminally negligent if any minister decreed that a No vote is in the bag and no mandarin need break sweat. So why would Downing Street make such a claim?
The mantra of “no pre-negotiation” can be ignored. There has been plenty of that, albeit written in headlines involving the currency, immigration and other things. Westminster has been staking positions all year. The idea that no contingency planning is taking place might be another phase in the game. It might also be a sign that someone means to spin out post-independence negotiations for as long as possible. Delay would suit London, not Edinburgh.
If that kind of too-clever thinking is going on, however, it contains a nasty flaw. Don't the voters, particularly the voters of England, deserve something better than a business-as-usual sham? Shouldn't they be told, finally, that the United Kingdom as they know it might be reaching its end, but that their government is on the case, preparing to secure the best deal it can on their behalf?
In Scotland, things grow more frenetic by the day. Elsewhere, there is a sense that England's dreaming. Wales and Northern Ireland look on with acute interest. Internationally, there is an awareness that a historic moment approaches. In Catalonia, for obvious reasons, the precedent of a Scottish Yes is desired keenly. Yet in England, even now, the attitude seems to be that the Scots can “go off”, for better or worse, as they please, and nothing important will alter.
This is not just a matter of international status and institutions, though these are another big deal. It has nothing to do with the fictions of border posts or families turned into foreigners. Instead, it is a mark of divergence and drift between two countries. England's sense of itself will be transformed by a Yes vote, yet that country's elected government – not our government, but that's another story – pretends to be sitting on its hands, whistling a merry tune.
The tale told by the FT, by my colleagues in these pages, and by correspondents to this newspaper, seems to have produced neither shock nor outrage south of the Border. The fact itself illustrates the strange prevailing mood in England. We know that a Yes vote will cost Mr Cameron his job. We can be certain a tidal wave of “How did this happen?” comment will follow. But polling that puts the matter, in the cliché, “on a knife-edge” attracts no more interest than the affairs of Clacton.
If you intend to vote Yes, you might say, “So what?” The absence of knowledge and interest within the Union's biggest partner would probably do as a reason to vote for independence. But repeated attempts by writers in the London papers to rouse English opinion have had no real effect. Voters in England are variously reported as baffled, “sad”, annoyed that they have no say in the UK's future, dismissive, or supportive of Scottish rights. But they are not, in the jargon, “engaged”. And these, whether the vote is Yes or No, are our neighbours.
With six points in it, and with the reasonable suspicion that the next poll will tip the independence campaign into the lead, you begin to wonder who really does speak for the UK. Better Together's cast list, whipping up their souffles of outrage and offence, are well enough known. They have distinguished themselves in recent weeks by no longer bothering to attempt that famous positive case for Union. One reason, perhaps, is that they have found no echo, hand-picked celebrities aside, in England.
Who got their beseeching phone calls from family and friends below the Border when that was the stunt of the week? Who gained a sense of feared loss from the neighbours? My preferences are the opposite of a secret, but I admit to being just a wee bit surprised. A respect for Scotland's right to make its own choice is admirable. That sounds like the English voters I know. But if it is their UK too, as it must be, they have a funny way of not showing it.
Perhaps things will change over the next fortnight. If opinion polls can catch up with reality, perhaps the people of England will do the same. It would be little enough and late enough, surely, if 307 years of Union matter as much as is claimed. The decision is close and the simple numbers grow closer by the day. All the while, Whitehall pretends it hasn't given the matter a second thought. An English voter might surely want to ask what that piece of nonsense is supposed to mean.
The Yes vote isn't there yet. Those of us who remember the Thatcher years learned a few lessons about counting chickens, to say nothing – nothing at all – about eggs. But for the first time in three centuries a resumed independence for Scotland is a serious possibility. Someone should drop a card in the mail: “To whom it may concern”.