Ian Swanson: Will this be the ‘Year of Substance’ in independence debate?

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SCOTLAND faces plenty of challenges in the coming year, not least the continuing problems of the economy and the consequences of austerity.

But so far as politicians are concerned, one issue will dominate all else, as it has for most of 2012 – independence.

It’s not that MSPs and ministers don’t care about poverty, rising prices, unemployment, homelessness and deprivation, education, health, transport and all the other things that people worry about.

But from now until the referendum in autumn 2014, all these issues will be discussed, analysed and addressed in the context of the debate about Scotland’s future.

Depending on their perspective, politicians will argue that the answer to many of the problems is either Scotland gaining the “normal powers” of a nation and taking control of its own destiny, or ensuring it remains part of the UK and continues to have “the best of both worlds” under devolution.

But how will the debate evolve over the next 12 months? What will the key arguments be about? And will there be any shift in public opinion?

A definite date for the referendum should be announced soon, pinning down the promise of “autumn 2014”.

With the principle of an independence vote accepted by both the Westminster and Holyrood governments in the Edinburgh Agreement, the details can now start to take shape.

Two bills are expected within the next couple of months – one to allow all 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum; and the other, the Referendum Bill itself, which will include the final wording of the question, the campaign spending limits and the precise date.

Before that, the Electoral Commission has to give its verdict on the Scottish Government’s proposed question after testing it with voters. Insiders say there could be some “tweaking” of the wording, but do not expect it to become a major issue. Opposition parties have complained the SNP’s favoured phrasing is more likely to produce the answer Yes, but when they asked experts to come up with an alternative, the result was a remarkably similar wording.

The Yes campaign says after “a year of process” in 2012, the next 12 months will be “a year of substance”.

In November, the government is due to publish a White Paper, setting out the detailed case for independence and what an independent Scotland would look like.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s “Yes” minister, however, has promised more information before then – for example, on how the welfare system might operate or the prospects for the Scottish economy. This is likely to come in a series of speeches and publications before the autumn.

Opinion polls have remained remarkably consistent, with support for independence between 30 and 40 per cent.

But the SNP takes comfort from more detailed survey findings, such as the one in October showing that if people believed the next UK general election would result in a Tory government at Westminster, support for independence soared to 52 per cent.

“It shows the Yes vote is there to be won,” says an insider. “The situation remains fluid. The people in the middle – those who would support the Union or independence come what may – are willing to go for the pragmatic option which will be in the best interests of Scotland. The challenge for the Yes campaign is to show that means independence.”

The Yes campaign will make the most of divisions within the anti-independence camp.

Although the Tories are not major players in Scotland, the SNP likes to describe the Better Together campaign as “Tory-led”. And one Yes man claims it will be harder and harder for Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory politicians to maintain any unity as the next Westminster elections come closer.

“It will be increasingly hard for Labour to argue the No case when it means the continuation of many of the unfair, damaging policies coming from the UK Government. It is already uncomfortable for Labour standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories – and it will become ever more problematic as time goes on.”

The anti-independence camp claims recent rows over Europe and Alex Salmond’s forced apology over his claims about college funding have taken some of the shine off the SNP government and that is affecting the Yes campaign.

One senior MSP says: “People might not know the details of college funding or the EU debate, but they know there’s something not right about the way the government has been behaving.

“With all that’s happening in London, the SNP and the pro-independence cause should be doing much better than they are.

“Support for independence is almost exactly where it was before. Something really big will have to happen if the SNP is going to turn this around.”

He says the Nationalists’ normal approach of turning the blame on London is not as effective in the current economic climate.

“People know something had to be done about the economy, so attacking the UK Government for making cuts is not having the same impact it might have had in previous times.

“The one thing that might still work for them is the welfare changes – more are due to take effect this year and that might have some effect on public opinion.”

But will the pro-Union parties come forward with a detailed vision of their alternative to independence, whether it be the status quo or more powers for Holyrood?

The Lib Dems have already produced proposals for a federal UK, Labour has a commission looking into the matter and David Cameron has spoken of extending devolution, though after a year there has been no fleshing out of just what that might mean. If all the parties put their cards on the table, then a proper debate on what Scotland’s future should be could begin.