It’s the nationalist’s referendum to lose. Senior Conservatives know this and as they know that Labour will be hobbled by the loss of 50 MPs voting in a parliament for which they have been given no mandate to vote on English/Welsh affairs, it’s plain to see why David Cameron has appointed a Thatcherite to advise him on Scotland (Andrew Dunlop previously advised Thatcher on deploying the poll tax a year earlier in Scotland than in England).
Simply put, the mechanics of voting will come down to the peculiar borderland that lies between the scientific rigour of the statistics used so far and the emotional nature of belief.
Assuming that the polls presented through the mainstream news media (MNM) are not only honest outcomes but devoid of question bias, there appears to be consistent levels of support for independence at around 38%. Given that many who speak in favour of independence for Scotland face being called ‘racist’ and ‘scum’ to their faces or behind their backs by work colleagues**, neighbours and some family members and yet continue to adhere to the ideal of democratic liberty, it’s a fair bet that on the day of the referendum ALL of these people will turn out to vote.
Now let’s do the sums for the other side of the argument. If, for the sake of simplicity, we generously assume that no-one else among the currently undecided will be persuaded of the arguments in favour of independence in the next couple of years and that there are no voters claiming to be in favour of the status quo in return for a quiet life while yet hoping for independence, we are left with potentially 62% of the electorate voting in favour of no change at all.
A majority? Well, no.
To get that 62% to turn out to vote, the Unionists have to pitch a strong, positive case. We know from the outcome of the 2011 Holyrood elections that it is positive politics that most motivates people to go out and vote, regardless of the weather or the TV schedules. Unionist politicians have yet to make a cohesive case, sometimes even within their own parties (Johann and Ed, Ruth and David, we’re looking at you).
If, rather than contesting that 16/17 year olds should be allowed to take part in a referendum in a country where we reach the age of legal majority two years earlier than in England, if rather than contesting whether there should be one question or two on the ballot paper, if there had been no arguing over the date despite a clear manifesto commitment from the SNP to hold the referendum in the latter half of the parliamentary cycle, the Unionists had instead insisted on an amendment that sought compulsory voting for the entire electorate, the weight of numbers may have worked in their favour. They did not. Oops.
Mandatory or compulsory voting is applied in democratic nations across the world. It works. No-one can claim that they didn’t get a chance to have their say in Australia or Brazil, Ecuador or Luxembourg.
This is where things get to what Sir Alex Ferguson calls ‘squeaky bum time‘ for Unionists. The last referendum to be conducted in Scotland produced a turn-out of 50.7% (according to The Electoral Commission) and this was to decide whether the alternative vote should be used in Westminster elections, arguably an issue of as much importance to Scots who are Unionist but don’t vote Labour as the forthcoming independence referendum. Just over half. People knew what was stake – democracy itself because let’s face it, the current system only helps The Big Two – and yet nearly half the electorate did not turn out.
While there is no doubt that more voters are likely to turn out for the independence referendum, 38% represents a significant majority out of that 50.7% of voter turn-out (around 75% in favour). With 2,500 people joining the SNP in the first months of 2012, it is likely that the 38% of Scottish voters in favour of independence will grow in number.
We should be in no doubt that the closer we get to the day of the referendum, the more shrill will become the doom-laden myths, particularly in ‘trusted’ news sources like the BBC, leaving Scots with no room at all for complacency. However, there is light among the gloom of the MNM’s obsession with talking down our country and that is this number: to get back to parity with pro-independence voters, the Unionist parties are going to have to persuade 38% of voters to actually go out and vote ‘no’. Twice.
This will be no easy task for the Unionists. As we have already seen, the STUC has already backed the SNP’s stance on how the referendum should be formulated and presented to voters. Party affiliation can therefore be no guarantee of voter loyalty among the Unionist parties and it’s not one question for which they have to present a strong positive case but two. For the Unionists to win on both counts, they are effectively going to have to persuade nearly 30% more of the Scottish electorate to get off its arse and down to the polling stations (assuming the nationalist’s retain their 38% share of the vote).
With these figures, a committed 38% in support of independence need do just two things to be free: first, remember to check on the months leading up to the referendum that they have not magically ‘disappeared’ from the electoral role and second, actually turn up at their polling station on the anointed day.
(** Yup. Real nice walking in on someone describing you in these terms – despite my English accent and English grandparents – and just for the record, I’m not a member of the SNP as I reserve the right to change my mind. After all, I was a pro-devolution unionist before I worked in England but that’s another story).