Trench Warfare 2014

It might be distasteful to some to use an analogy so redolent to the First World War, but there can be few that better sums up the current state of the Scottish Independence referendum campaign as “trench warfare”.  (By the way, my grandfather Ned Russell fought in the trenches, was wounded and reported missing in action in April 1918. He was taken prisoner of war, and lived until 1949 despite severe leg wounds.)

Where we are is that following the opening exchanges of the campaign, the front line between occupied territory as shown by the opinion polls is largely stagnant: for example, since January the polls which favour Yes (Survation, Panelbase,) have been stuck at about 40% in favour of independence. Likewise, those that record higher rates for No (YouGov, Ipsos-MORI) have continued to record Yes at under 37%.

In other words, Yes remains behind with only minimal evidence of narrowing, which is even then usually contradicted by a subsequent poll.

(Students of polling may also note that the polls that favour No are those with the better track record, for example, YouGov was the closest to accuracy in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.)


In the meantime, there is no lack of activity. On the strategic level, the generals have been delivering the heavy ordnance. In November, the Scottish Government rolled out its would-be game-changer: the 600+ page manifesto for independence which was the White Paper “Scotland’s Future”.  In February, the big guns of the UK government and opposition responded with the crucial announcement that there would be no Currency Union between the remainder UK and any future independent Scotland.

The result of these assaults has been Not Very Much, as they have made little perceptible impact on the voting intentions in the referendum.

Peter Kellner of YouGov has written cogently on the subject on his  blog. His conclusion, having asked questions about who believes what, is that Yes voters overwhelmingly believe the Yes campaign and (lo and behold), No voters believe the No campaign in the same measure.

It will be interesting to see whether Better Together’s  Mother’s Day of Weekends from Hell on 29th-30th March has any effect on the polls: on past evidence, it will again be Not Very Much.

So why do we not all put down our guns, have a kick-about in no-man’s land, and go home?

First of all, it is because the UK government were so inept as to concede the timing of the referendum in the Edinburgh Agreement. It defies explanation as to why there needed to be any delay longer than May, when the polling arrangements for the European Parliament elections will be in place.

So we are stuck with the date, but what is to be made of the continuing activity? At the level of high politics, it is essential that the population is well informed, but as we have seen, the battlefield never changes. Unless something extraordinary happens, it seems highly unlikely that there will be a decisive big push or knock-out blow before 18th September.

So this leaves the media campaign and the local events and organisation.

The media campaign is where many of the small arms exchanges are taking place, although again it seems with little effect. However, it is worth pointing out that the Scottish media are caught in the barbed wire between the armies, and they are not coping well.

To break out of the WWI analogy, the better metaphor is that of the press coverage of the MMR vaccine. In that case the pursuit of balance in reporting led to equal prominence and credence being given to unscientific and partial opinion as to peer-reviewed and authoritative research, with dangerous outcomes as use of the vaccine fell below “herd immunity” levels. In the referendum debate, both sides get equal coverage, even if one of them (usually Yes) is talking mince, as we say in the west of Scotland. Two examples of note are the Currency Union debate, where Yes dismissed a definitive bipartisan policy statement as “bluff”; and EU membership, where Yes attributed the intervention of the President of the Commission as a bid to get the UK government to support him as Secretary-General of NATO.

In the name of intellectual honesty, it is incumbent on the Scottish media to be more sceptical of the Yes campaign in such cases: unsupported assertion does not deserve the same levels of prominence or credibility as measurable and accountable facts.

On the level of community events and local activity, the First World War analogy comes back into play: they are keeping the home fires burning. In the absence of real progress at the Front, the aim for both sides is keep up morale and prepare for the fight ahead.

There can be little surprise that Yes are doing quite well at this aspect of the campaign, in the light of its massively superior spending power. The SNP Scottish Government has diverted Scottish Government resources for the production of its independence plans and used large sums of taxpayer money for their publication and promotion. In addition, the YesScotland campaign has been heavily bankrolled by eccentric millionaires most notably the record lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir, as opposed to the many individual but much smaller donations received by Better Together.

So what we have is a static campaign, with buzz bombs and high explosives whizzing overhead, but not having much effect.

The poor bloody infantry are slogging away, sniping and lobbing the occasional grenade (what did for Ned’s leg incidentally).

The media are stuck, confused, in No-Man’s Land.

Back at home, each side is singing the right songs to keep spirits up, and turning a deaf ear to the other side’s blandishments.

The difference is that unlike in 1914-1918, we know when the final battle will take place: in the run-in to 18th September. Following the outcome of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election campaign, Yes will remain confident that they can and will succeed right up until the votes are counted. No will take comfort from the certainty that never again can a political campaign be as inept as the Labour Party’s on that occasion.

And if things go on as they are, there will be further comforts for Better Together. These are best set out by the redoubtable Professor Tomkins in his mighty blog:

BUt here are few of my own. First, they will start well in the lead, like an army commanding the high ground before the charge.  

Second, they will be equipped with certain knowledge that independence is not in Scotland’s economic interest – which shows time and again to be the issue which influences most voters.

Third, they will know that despite the high levels of community activity, much of it aimed at young people, school referendums are overwhelmingly in their favour.

Finally, they will know that much of the hopes of Yes will depend on a combination of a late swing of voters, plus differential turnout in their favour, and that the latter can be countered by sound organisation. And so, unless something unprecedented happens, No has every reason to remain the happier camp.


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