With 12 months until Scotland's independence referendum, which way will voters turn?

James Cusick meets the rival yes/no campaign chiefs in their Glasgow headquarters to find out who can settle the argument

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Blair Jenkins, the former television executive in charge of Yes Scotland, the campaign in favour of independence, is a busy man. He also knows things are going to get worse over the next 12 months.

“This week I’ve been in East Kilbride and Elgin, then it’s Perth tomorrow, a live BBC debate on Wednesday, Galashiels Friday, a march and rally in Edinburgh Saturday,” he sighs. “It’s intense now and I don’t know how much more intense it can get. It’s a year till the referendum vote, but it already feels like we’re in the last month of the campaign.”

Jenkins shouldn’t be saying this. It hints at burnout – and anything negative or weak is routinely pounced upon by his opponents at Better Together, the organisation aiming to keep the United Kingdom united when Scotland goes to the polls in exactly 12 months’ time.

But the man in charge of the No campaign, Blair McDougall, a former adviser to Labour cabinet ministers Ian McCartney and James Purnell, is feeling magnanimous. He doesn’t take the bait offered by The Independent during visits to the two campaigns’ headquarters in Glasgow. “There is an argument to be made for independence, but it needs to be made honestly,” he says.

McDougall shouldn’t be saying this either. His campaign’s focus has been on the “risk” of going it alone, how the Scottish parliament is already in “full control” over key policies, and how Scotland’s finances, jobs, currency, innovation and skills, are “more secure as part of a bigger family”.

An argument to be made for independence? Isn’t that heretical from the “No” boss? Jenkins doesn’t take the bait here either. Instead he suggests that Westminster needs to change its attitude to the independence vote. “At the moment they [the UK Government] say: ‘We are not doing any contingency planning. We don’t need to talk, because it’s not going to happen.’

“But if the argument for independence is made, if it becomes possible that Scotland might vote ‘Yes’, then English voters will say ‘Hang on, you’d better start planning, because how is this going to work?’”

The two headquarters are five minutes’ walk from each other in Glasgow, but politically, the two Blairs are a universe apart. If there’s halfway house pub where peace accords are talked of, nobody is saying where it is.

Yes Scotland is housed in a basement off Hope Street, and boxes around the HQ are covered in photocopies of the street sign. For a team hoping to end 300 years of political union, everything looks low-key, but appearances can be deceptive.

The office is split into three desk groupings. The research and strategy desk is headed by Stephen Noon, who is studying for a PhD in European law at Edinburgh University. He dismisses any legal argument that Scotland will have to wait before it joins the EU, and swats away all high-grade academic evaluations, from LSE or elsewhere, that have suggested adopting the euro would be part of any EU deal.

In Noon’s team is a young Oxford PPE graduate who, strangely, is a member of the Labour Party (no, he doesn’t see the contradiction). An Essex man, born in Southend, he has lived north of the border for 20 years. Now in charge of marketing and with responsibility for the Yes campaign’s equivalent of party political broadcasts, in front of him is a thick book with a bold font: How to Win Campaigns, by Chris Ross.

Is this the equivalent of being wheeled into an operating theatre and finding the green-masked man with the scalpel reading Successful Bowel Surgery? “No, it’s a great book” he says. The “community” desk for Jenkins is the key to winning. Four people are briefing the grassroots around the country, ensuring any new message escapes from Hope Street and is heard. “The way we’ll win is by being community focused, getting into individual conversations with people … that’s how close we want to get. Intense grassroots activity will be decisive,” he says.

Evangelical nationalists have long learned to ignore the polls. And although the Yes campaign has been serially behind the No vote, a PanelBase survey for the Sunday Times last week suggested that although support for independence was 10 points behind the 47 per cent intent on retaining the union, some of the 16 per cent who were undecided, might, if pushed, switch to Yes, and close the gap to just four points. As the Speaker might say in Westminster: “The undecideds have it.”

Jenkins is pleased that the gap might be closing: “All we’ve asked people to do this year is think about it.” He describes independence as previously being a theoretical concept, something that was never going to happen. “Now the choice is real – and we’ll win.” McDougall is more laid back than his rival. His team are housed in a serviced office in Blythswood Square. The entrance is impressive; the facilities inside less so. And although McDougall bought in the community-vote software used by Barack Obama to win the presidency, having Alistair Darling, the former chancellor, as frontman suggests a high level of faith in the pragmatism of voters next year.

A regional Sunday newspaper claimed the No campaign privately call themselves “Project Fear”. McDougall says this is “nonsense”. But for nationalists angry at descriptions of a poor Scotland, struggling without UK handouts, the label stuck.

“We have concentrated on screw-ups,” he says. “The SNP government make promises on retaining sterling which turn out to be pretence rather than certainty. The same was true over legal advice on joining the EU, which wasn’t true. We were told Scotland wouldn’t have a net fiscal deficit – not true.” He protests that any challenge to what the Yes campaign says is dismissed as “un-Scottish”.

So what do both camps agree on? The two Blairs acknowledge that it might all come down to the wire. But both agree that the referendum has already changed Scotland, evidenced by the revival of the public meeting.

McDougall expects the next year to be tough. “[First Minister Alex] Salmond can’t have it both ways. He can’t say everything will change, and promise nothing will really change. So we’ll continue to address that.”

Jenkins has a calm, almost enviable, faith that “the polls are going to catch up with our campaign”. Only one of them is going to be right.

Clash of the clans: The rival camps stack up

Yes Scotland

Frontman: Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister.

Key Players: Blair Jenkins, chief executive. Denis Canavan, independent MSP.

Finances: Donations earlier this year of £1.6m. Electoral Commission recommended £1.5m limit

Star Supporters: Sir Sean Connery, Brian Cox, Alan Cummings.

Secret Weapon: Next year’s Commonwealth Games.

Better Together

Frontman: Alistair Darling, former Labour chancellor.

Key players: Blair McDougal, former Labour special adviser. Tories and Lib Dems.

Finances: Expected to spend recommended limit of £1.5m.

Star Supporters: potentially Andy Murray, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Alex Ferguson. But nothing confirmed.

Secret Weapon: Gordon Brown.