Will Scotland leave the United Kingdom?

On September 18, Scots head to the polls to decide whether they want Scotland to become an independent country.  Polling suggests that the NO side is leading, but there are enough undecided voters that the outcome is still too close to call at this point.

On Tuesday, the leaders of the two campaigns, Alex Salmond (the First Minister of Scotland and leading independence supporter) and Alistair Darling (Labour MP and former Chancellor of the Exchequer to Gordon Brown) squared off.  It was a lively debate from the start with both politicians going after the weaknesses in the other side’s arguments.

For Darling, the attack on the YES campaign focused on what currency Scotland would use following independence.  Salmond insisted that his preference would be to use the Pound, but Darling kept asking what Plan B would be if the Bank of England decided not to allow a currency union between the UK and Scotland.

For Salmond, his arguments were far more emotional.  He kept asking Darling whether he agreed with UK Prime Minister David Cameron that Scotland could be a “successful independent country”.  He attacked the NO campaign for its tactics – dubbed “campaign fear”.

Overall, my sense was that if you were undecided about how to vote, odds are the debate was of little help in making a decision.

You can watch the best part of the debate here:

Polling conducted for the Guardian newspaper by ICM found that among those who watched the debate, a plurality selected Darling as the the winner (Darling 47% vs. Salmond 37%).  Fifteen percent said they were unsure.  However, looking deeper at the poll results, it’s clear that perceptions about the debate were strongly correlated with one’s position on independence (no surprise!).  Among those who would vote YES, 67% believed Salmond won the debate while 78% of those who would vote NO thought Darling won.  However, among those who were unsure about how they would vote in a referendum, Salmond edged out Darling by 8-points (44% picked Salmond compared with 36% for Darling).

When those who watched the debate were asked how they would vote in a referendum, 42% said they would vote yes while 47% would vote no.  11% were undecided.  These results are fairly similar to polls released by other firms prior to the debate indicating that the debate did little at this point in changing perceptions or opinions.

Why I think the NO side is favoured at this point?

While the NO side has the edge in the polls (not one poll since January has had the YES side leading), the YES campaign could still win.  However, I think that outcome is becoming increasingly less likely (the bookies raised the odds that the NO side wins after the debate by the way).

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This is because as the campaign continues, undecided voters will likely stick with the status quo.

Independence is a big risk.  The list of unknowns remains quite long despite the massive white paper released by the Scottish Government before the campaign began.  Many undecided voters are unsure about what impact independence will have on their families and personal financial positions.  The YES side argues that each Scot would be better off by thousands of pounds.  The NO side refutes that claim with their own stats that show staying in the UK is better.

The choice for Scots is a conflict between emotion and logic.  Ultimately, I think logic will win over emotion because, as Darling said so many times during the debate, there’s no going back after a YES vote.  If the YES side cannot convince people that they will be better off in an independent Scotland financially, then they won’t win.

A YouGov poll at the end of June found that only 30% of Scots surveyed believed that Scotland would be better off economically if it became an independent country.  Moreover, only 19% believed they would be personally better off if Scotland was independent while 39% believed they would be worse off.  Mind you, 19% were still unsure so there is time for Salmond and the YES side to make a better case.

And the impact of indecision? Results from a recent Ipsos MORI poll (which found the NO side leading by 15-points, YES 37%, NO 52%, DK 11%), finds that among those who were unsure about how they would vote or those who said they may change their mind, how they would likely vote on September 18,  38% said they would vote NO while 26% said they would vote YES while 22% said they would not vote at all.

Talking about nuclear weapons or David Cameron’s Tories will not be enough.  Darling and the NO campaign knows that the currency issue is a good wedge that the YES side cannot overcome.  If independence means that people’s life savings and the value of their homes will drop even 5%, that’s a cost many may not take for independence – especially when all three main parties are offering further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes no.


David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data and leads its Public Affairs research practice. He has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.  He’s an avid road cyclist.

Contact David Coletto:

T: 613-232-2806 x. 248

E: david@abacusdata.ca

W: http://www.abacusdata.ca

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