IT’S here. The year of decision has arrived. By the end of 2014, Scotland will either have voted to become an independent country and started negotiations on a split with the rest of the UK or rejected the SNP’s dream and opted to stick with the Union for better or for worse.
Most of the polls suggest a clear No win in September – though some show the anti-independence majority beginning to shrink.
The launch of the White Paper in November does not look like the “game changer” the SNP hoped it would be. But with almost nine months to go, the Better Together camp know it would be dangerously complacent for them to assume victory.
So how is the campaign likely to shape up from now on? For a long time now, the public has divided roughly three to two against independence.
Polling guru Professor John Curtice says the Yes campaigners need to see that shifting in their favour by next month. “The longer it goes on [before the polls improve] the more difficult it looks for them,” he says.
“They need to see some sign of progress by February. If the White Paper is going to make any kind of impact it should have shown through by then.”
Some people might give them a little longer, however. The Yes camp believes many people have not yet sat down and thought seriously about their choice, far less come to a definitive view. And some people might not make up their minds until almost the last minute. Months of debate on Scotland’s future are not everyone’s cup of tea. “The four weeks of a normal election campaign is more than enough for most people,” says one leading No figure.
And what is it that will persuade people to decide for or against independence?
The Yes side undoubtedly faces the bigger challenge. While the No camp needs only to make the most of the uncertainties which inevitably surround an independent future, warning of dangers and raising doubts, the pro-independence campaign must be relentlessly optimistic, trying to create a confident attitude and feelgood mood. Prof Curtice sees one major potential pitfall for the No side.
“There is one point in the year when things could go pear-shaped,” he says. “And that is the Labour and Conservative conferences. The big issue on which the No side needs to get its ducks in a row is more devolution. Both parties have their own divisions internally, let alone the question of whether they could agree a position with Lib Dems. So for the Yes camp, if the polls have not started narrowing by February, their one hope is that the No paries screw up in the spring.”
With 2014 a busy year for anniversaries, the No camp might hope to benefit from the attention which will be focused on the centenary of the start of the First World War and the shared UK history of that conflict, while the Yes campaign can be expected to capitalise on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
And of course there’s the Commonwealth Games which Scotland will be hosting just before the referendum. International prestige and/or sporting prowess could provide a last-minute boost for independence.
But Prof Curtice is clear that a patriotic appeal will not win the referendum for the SNP and their allies.
“There are not enough people for whom that is important,” he says. “Yes need to move the economic argument forward. They need something more than Braveheart to persuade people it is worth taking the plunge.”