The historic deal signed on Monday by Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmon sets out the ground rules for the vote on Scottish Independence to be held in 2014. It covers the nuts and bolts of the vote and states that the vote will consist of a single Yes/No question on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, that it will allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote, and that it must be held before the end of 2014.
In fact, though, the campaigns for and against independence were launched some months ago, well before this agreement on behalf of the UK and Scottish governments. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, heads the Better Together unionist group and he definitely in the glass half-empty camp saying independence is “not freedom but more like serfdom”. Blair Jenkins, former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, directs the Yes lobby. Firmly in the glass half-full camp, Jenkins recently enthused “How fantastic is it that we are the first generation of Scots – the only generation of Scots – to get a chance to vote on this issue and we could leave a better bequest to our children, grandchildren and future generations to come being an independent Scotland”. This polarisation in views reflects the very different opinions in the Scottish political landscape, and also those of the electorate who, varyingly, oppose independence, embrace it or just don’t know what all the fuss is about.
With potentially over two years before the vote, both campaigns have time to develop their arguments, to inform and engage the Scottish public, many of whom remain undecided on the independence issue. An opinion poll in June determined that 35% of Scots eligible and likely to vote back independence, down 4% from January. Over the same period opposition to independence had increased by five points to 55%.
The 20% of voters who are undecided represent a sizeable opportunity for both campaigns, and it may be that the Yes campaign will be able to gain advantage from the considerable coup of David Cameron’s appearance in Edinburgh to sign the deal on the vote, from the SNP conference taking place this week in Perth and, indeed, from antipathy to the no-change-at-all-costs ethos of the Better Together campaign. Many Scots, though, remain uncertain of the implications of independence upon the Scottish economy, and are confused about the complex defence issues too, particularly with regard to nuclear weapons and membership of NATO.
The odds offered by bookmakers are a useful barometer for the referendum outcome. Back in July, bookie William Hill offered odds of 1/16 that Scotland will not be fully independent by 2020, with odds of 7/1 that Scotland will be independent. The odds for independence have now shortened, from 7/1 to 9/4 as a consequence of the recent agreement between the Prime Minister and the First Minister.
The evolution of the two campaigns and the changing views of voters will engage the media hugely over the next couple of years, in Scotland and in the United Kingdom as a whole. There will be enormous interest in the outcome and also the process, particularly the inclusion of 16 and 17-year old voters for the first time.
Grant Costello, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, says “we can marry, pay taxes and join the army, so why not vote?” Changes in the perception and recognition of the 16 and 17-year old age group have led to this seminal decision to extend the democratic process to a younger age group and there will be national and international interest in the outcomes of the referendum accordingly.
The bookmakers’ odds on an independent Scotland fly in the face of current polls but, with two years to go, the Yes campaign and the Better Together campaign are only just starting to gear up, and we can expect public perceptions to shift accordingly as they gain full access to the complex issues involved. Is your glass half full or half empty? That is for the Scottish nation to decide in 2014.