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Coalition worries that Alex Salmond's personal popularity could nudge Scotland to independence

By Tim Montgomerie
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Screen shot 2011-09-25 at 08.46.24 Opinion polls over a long period have found most Scots against independence. The usual margin is something like two-to-one. The SNP has downplayed talk of independence in its last two election campaigns. People haven't voted for the SNP because they are nationalists. They've voted SNP because Alex Salmond is one of the most charismatic politicians on the UK political scene. Scots have voted against the incompetent leadership of Scottish Labour and for the SNP's mix of left-wing policies (protecting public sector jobs and no tuition fees) and right-wing policies (more police on the streets and a freeze in council tax (- see ads on right)). Scotland has been able to afford this mix because of a very unequal distribution of spending across the UK. Most Scots understand this. By 43% to 14% Scots understand that they'd be worse off outside the Union. 31% think independence would make no difference to the tartan wallet.

Downing Street cannot afford to be complacent, however. Some more recent opinion polls suggest a more fluid public opinion. A ComRes survey, back in May, found that 38% of people in Scotland supported independence, against 46% who did not. A unconventionally worded poll from TNS-BRMB and published in The Herald actually found a 39% to 38% lead for independence. A YouGov survey for The Sun, in contrast, was more consistent with the long-run pattern of only 29% of Scots wanting independence.

It is against this background that this morning's Independent on Sunday reports that the Quad at the heart of the Coalition (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and the Scottish Danny Alexander) are considering a more aggressive campaign to defeat Alex Salmond's plan for independence:

"The Prime Minister has ordered an aggressive government attack on the SNP in the hope of raising the alarm in England and Scotland about the prospect of Scotland voting to split from the United Kingdom. He believes the First Minister has had an easy ride and not faced enough questions on how an independent Scotland would stay afloat – and bankroll its huge pensions and benefits bill without raising taxes."

I don't know if the IoS story is accurate but if it's true it's vital that it's not led by Tory and Lib Dem ministers. The two Coalition parties are currently polling just 18% in Scotland. The collapse of the Lib Dems in Scotland has been even more dramatic than in the north of England. As Iain Martin has tweeted, the Coalition parties have LESS support today than the Scottish Tories had in 1997. In contrast Alex Salmond has sky high approval ratings. 62% are satisfied with his performance and just 28% dissatisfied. If it's a battle between Michael Moore (the Scottish Secretary in case you haven't heard of him) and Alex Salmond there is only one winner. Any defence of the Union must involve Labour and business people. The tactics could be negative but they must be opinion poll driven. The No2AV campaign provided the model for this.

I am, of course, assuming that we want to keep the UK together. Most Tory members certainly do but there is evidence that support for break up is actually greater within England. Cameron is under pressure to address the West Lothian Question but the constraints of the Coalition make it a low priority.

Meanwhile Murdo Fraser continues his campaign to build a new centre right party for Scotland. He wrote about it on ConHome yesterday.


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