Could the White Paper on Independence be a Game Changer?By John Curtice on 27 November 2013
The Scottish Government launched its White Paper on independence on Tuesday against an unfavourable polling backdrop. Over the last three months the polls have on average put the Yes vote on 32%, 17 points behind the No tally of 49%. Once the Don’t Knows are put aside these figures suggest that if the referendum were held now, Yes would score 38% and No 62%. Such an outcome would represent quite a serious defeat for the nationalist cause. So the Scottish Government badly needs the White Paper to prove to be a ‘game changer’. But does it seem likely that it will succeed in turning the Yes side’s fortunes around?
Previous polling evidence suggests that there were two important buttons that the White Paper needed to press if it was likely to help achieve that aim.
First it has to have convinced voters that they and their country would be economically and financially better off under independence. No issue is more closely related to whether people are currently inclined to vote Yes or No than whether or not they think independence would bring prosperity. Moreover, the 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that as many as 65% might be willing to vote for independence if they thought they could be £500 a year better off. But so far voters have not been convinced that that is what would happen. Just last week a Panelbase poll reported that just 15% thought independence might make them £500 a year better of.
Second, the White Paper needed to reduce the air of uncertainty, even fear, that currently seems to surround the independence project. The 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes survey reported that 58% are unsure what independence might bring, while almost exactly the same proportion, 59%, said they felt worried about the prospect. Unsurprisingly, voters who feel that way are less likely to back the idea of leaving the UK.
But does it look as though the White Paper has actually hit those buttons? As expected, one key argument in the document is that independence would give the Scottish Government the powers it needs to make Scotland’s economy grow more quickly. One key headline policy proposal - more free childcare for under fives - is intended to demonstrate how a different approach to government policy could make a difference. By helping get more women into work, families would have higher incomes and in so doing pay more in tax revenues. Meanwhile, on the assumptions the Scottish Government at least prefers to make about the prospects for North Sea Oil and how much it would have to pay to service its share of the national debt, the paper also claims that as soon as it became independent Scotland’s fiscal position would be healthier than that of the UK as a whole.
Yet little prospect is held out of more money appearing anytime soon in the average voter’s pockets. There are some promises of tax cuts – but on corporation tax and air passenger duty, not on any of the taxes that most voters regularly pay. And apart from the childcare promise (and perhaps a slightly higher old age pension than in the rest of UK) there is little either in the way of commitments to more spending from which ordinary voters might benefit. Moreover most of these proposals are only for implementation a few years hence rather than immediately on Scotland becoming independent.
Scotland’s public finances may be healthier than those of the rest of the UK, but as the White Paper acknowledges, on becoming independent in 2016 the country would still be spending substantially more than it earns. Consequently, the SNP has been left with very little room to make immediate tax and spending promises that would mean voters would have more money in their pockets straight away. The risk from Mr Salmond’s point of view is that consequently voters might decide that the economic and financial benefits of independence sound too vague and too far into the distant future.
So far as uncertainty is concerned, by providing a clear, detailed statement of what independence might look like and how it could be delivered, the White Paper attempts to provide answers to a myriad of possible questions that voters might have. Indeed the paper contains a section in which 650 specific questions are answered. That ought to help end the air of uncertainty – and provides a sharp contrasts with the fact that the unionist parties are still working out what they might be willing to offer in the form of more devolution.
However, a key feature of the SNP’s vision for independence is that it envisages many areas of continuing collaboration with the UK – and also requires the goodwill of the European Union. Not only would the SNP like Scotland to keep the pound as part of a monetary union with the rest of the UK that is backed by jointly agreed fiscal rules, but it also wants the country’s own new public service broadcaster to have a close working relationship with the BBC, to keep the UK-wide scientific research councils and for the UK government to keep Scotland’s share of the national debt in its name. At the same time it would like the UK government to agree to remove its nuclear weapons capability from Scottish waters within a matter of years.
Equally, the Scottish government would like the EU to amend its treaties to facilitate Scotland’s continued membership of the EU rather than force it to apply as a new member. It would also like to have permission from Brussels to continue to be able to impose tuition fees on university students from England and for pension funds with members living in both Scotland and the rest of the UK not to have to be fully funded straight away.
These proposals might well be in Scotland’s interests. Many of them seem designed to make it easier for the SNP to argue that independence would not result in the immediate loss of all ties with the rest of the UK – a potentially important consideration amongst an electorate where many still feel British as well as Scottish. However, none of them is in the sole gift of an independent Scottish government. Neither the UK government nor the EU has so far shown much inclination to say such arrangements would be acceptable – indeed, on the crucial issue of the pound the very opposite is the case. As a result voters may well feel there is still an awful lot of uncertainty.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde.
Image: Scottish Government CC BY -NC