Ian Swanson: Slow and steady could win race

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FOR the first time since the referendum campaign got going, there are signs of a significant shift in opinion. A poll at the weekend showed the Yes camp narrowing the gap from 17 points to just seven – 37 per cent in favour of independence and 44 per cent against. Nineteen per cent said they did not yet know how they would vote.

After months of virtually static opinion polls, the figures put the Yes camp within reach of victory.

Of course, the Yes surge could prove to be a blip or the result of a “rogue” poll. But the survey was conducted by ICM, which is regarded by many as one of the most reliable pollsters, with a good track record of getting close to the actual outcome of elections and referendums.

At the start of the year, polls guru Professor John Curtice told the Evening News that the Yes camp needed to see a move in the polls in its direction by February if it was going to have a chance of winning the referendum. “The longer it goes on [before the polls improve] the more difficult it looks for them, “ he said. On cue, that poll shift now seems to have arrived.

So what explains the shift in opinion after such a long period of apparently flat-lining support?

The Yes campaign’s Stephen Noon has described how the strategy has been a gradual process of persuasion, building confidence and winning people over, rather than looking for a single “game-changing” event or a “Eureka moment”.

First they try to convince people that Scotland could be independent – “We’ve got what it takes” – and then that Scotland should be independent. It’s an approach that makes sense and now looks as if it may be producing the desired results.

But despite the dramatic poll finding and its implications, the referendum still seems not to register very strongly on the political radar south of the Border.

Prime Minister David Cameron was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for 20 minutes the day after the poll was published, yet the prospect of Scotland voting for independence was never mentioned. As one commentator said, it’s only the future of the UK that’s at stake.

Leading figures in the Better Together campaign frequently say that while they may be ahead in the polls there is no room for complacency. But in some cases, that does seem to be exactly the mood. The UK political parties are busying themselves in preparation for the 2015 Westminster general election, largely ignoring the potential political earthquake which could overtake them before then.

There are still 230 days to go till the referendum and plenty of opportunity for polls to go up and down between now and then, but perhaps these latest figures will serve as a wake-up call for those who want to preserve the UK.

Labour’s promise to restore the 50p top tax rate for people earning more than £150,000 a year may help the No campaign by reminding people there are alternative policies on offer at Westminster.

But there are all sorts of issues that concern people, as Alex Salmond and his colleagues found out when they held their Cabinet meeting in Bathgate this week, followed by the first of eight ministerial question times around the country on what independence would mean. No-one asked about the currency or Scotland’s membership of the European Union – two issues which have dominated much of the political debate recently. But one man did want to know whether an independent Scotland would repeal the ban on docking dogs’ tails.