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Scotland’s two tribes are more divided than ever – they see reality differently

26 April 2015

5:16 PM

26 April 2015

5:16 PM

Expectations just keep increasing for the SNP. Today’s Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times puts the nationalists on an eye-popping 48 percent of the vote in Scotland. Labour activists and candidates report better that on the fabled doorsteps the response they’re getting is much better than that recorded by the opinion pollsters. Doubtless, in some constituencies, this is true. But it seems unlikely to be enough. The ship will not go down with all hands but there will still, it seems, be few survivors.

This remains a strange election. Ordinarily I’d say the straw-clutchers are hopelessly mistaken. The numbers do not lie. They are worth more than anecdotal evidence and gut-checking hunches. And yet, can it really be the case that the SNP will win as many as 50 seats in Scotland? The bounds of possibility are being tested here, to say nothing of the limits of our imagination.

And to think it is only four months since folk met suggestions the SNP might win more than 30 seats with chuckling disbelief.

The nationalist advance, it need scarcely be said, is aided and abetted by a Tory campaign in England that has die-hard Unionists in despair north of the Tweed. The idea, peddled by Teresa May, that a Labour government propped-up by SNP votes would be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication is the kind of thing to tempt even solidly Unionist Scots to back the nationalists. If you make Scots choose between Scottishness and Unionism the latter will always lose. That seems to be the Tory campaign, however.

Nevertheless, the latest polling confirms that Scotland is two tribes now. Unionist and Nationalist simply see reality differently and there is very little that anyone can do to bridge the gap between these alternate worlds.

Consider the issue of full fiscal autonomy (now rebadged as full fiscal responsibility). It is hardly a surprise that 86 percent of Yes voters favour such a move (though the extent to which FFA is fully understood may reasonably be reckoned doubtful); nor that only 27 percent of No voters approve of the idea.

The more important difference, however, comes when the notional impact of FFA is considered. 74 percent of SNP supporters think FFA would leave Scotland better off; just two percent of Conservative voters agree. (23 percent of Labour voters think so and only 13 percent of the remaining Liberal Democrats are likewise inclined.)

It is possible that, in the long-run, subject to economic growth in Scotland comfortably outstripping economic growth in the rest of the United Kingdom, this could be the case (in the admittedly unlikely event FFA is actually ever implemented).

But it is not possible for this to be true in the short-to-medium term and no amount of SNP blathering that the current figures are irrelevant can make it so. Indeed, even the nationalists tacitly admit this. Which is why they talk about it being phased in over many years and why, they advise, no-one should really take the idea too seriously. You may have noticed that they no longer talk about it very loudly.

I confess I thought FFA would give Labour an advantage and that this might, as they say, cut through with voters. This does not seem to have happened.

Perhaps the numbers don’t mean anything. Perhaps they can be twisted to mean anything or make any argument. Many people seem to think so, anyway. The amount of trust – even faith – voters are prepared to grant the SNP is, well, quite something. Not all parties are subjected to the same level of scrutiny, far less the same standards.

Of course, for many SNP types the argument is not necessarily about the numbers anyway. It is about something bigger and better than that. Which is fine, though not the same thing as saying the numbers are irrelevant.

Because, at the moment, the policy the SNP pretend to support would ‘cost’ Scotland something like £8bn a year. That gap could, for sure, be closed in time but not, at least not initially, except by cutting spending, raising taxes or some combination of the two.

That might be worth it! But it is one of those ideas that I fancy folk support in the abstract but which is likely to prove considerably less popular if or when voters have a greater understanding of what it would actually entail. Even if it were delivered as a process, not overnight.

Neither the SNP nor the Unionist parties (collectively) can really claim to speak for the country, for the country remains divided. Our politics is much more like American politics now than it is like politics in England and Wales. There are two teams and most voters’ loyalty is of the unquestioning kind.

Indeed, I fancy opinion – on both sides – has hardened, not softened since the referendum. Panelbase report that 45 percent of voters would vote Yes if given another chance to do so tomorrow and 48 percent would vote No. We are still where we were last summer, in other words.

Labour’s best issue on the doorsteps now, I suspect, is the uncertainty and division that would necessarily be stirred up by another referendum. That’s why they remain keen to press the issue and why Nicola Sturgeon has gone to such lengths to insist this election has nothing to do with independence.

And, of course, in one sense the First Minister is correct. Even an SNP landslide cannot deliver another plebiscite. But we all know the issue hasn’t gone away and won’t do so until something – in either direction – changes. For all the sound and fury about everything else the national question is still the foundations upon which all politics is built in Scotland these days.

Finally, Panelbase asked one other interesting question, offering respondents a straight choice between Prime Minister Miliband and Prime Minister Cameron. Ed won that battle decisively but it might surprise some people – though not those who have been paying attention – that 30 percent of Scots prefer Cameron.

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