30 June 2009

Labour's Pushmi-Pullyu on an independence referendum...

So there we have it, the BBC poll of 1010 people found that 58% want a referendum on independence held in 2010. Where matters get interesting, however, is when one contrasts this with the Sunday Times YouGov poll, taken between the 12th and 13th of March this year, asking 1380 people two questions.

Firstly, YouGov posed the quibbling enquiry “Would you support or oppose the idea of holding a referendum on Scottish independence in principle”? 57% supported holding the aforementioned phantasmal, principled plebiscite, 29% would oppose even the figment of such a referendum, while 14% didn’t know what to think.

Following lukewarmly on the heels of this question, another. “In view of the economic recession, would you consider a referendum on Scottish independence being held next year appropriate, inappropriate, or dinnae ken?" The division here seemed to buoy the Liberal Democrat, Tory and Labour line, with only 32% approving, 54% regarding such exploration of public opinion as inappropriate, while the “don’t knows” were joined by another 1% of the opinion-giving total at 15%.

From the sweaty and lethargic doldrums of 32% in favour in March, a leap up to 58% is significant, assuming that Scotland is an echo room, and the affirmative view voiced in the poll would resonate. Particularly important, and cunningly, the BBC poll posed the question “flat” – should there be a referendum - but crucially anchored the answers in time to 2010, implicitly encompassing the present economic recession.

The Sunday Times poll was clearly worded to generate a negative response to the second question, or at least to suggest it, while the latter question lacked similar indicative overtones. Is that what made the difference, simply a pollsters’ hex, enchantment and confidence trick? Or can we draw more robust and politically significant conclusions?

Here are a few reasons why we might want to reply ‘maybe’. It is important to recognise that the Labour case against a referendum, couched in a discourse of economic difficulty, is profoundly Janus faced – or in the alternative – is a classic case of that political llama, Pushmi-Pullyu. The right head insists that the stormy heavens of the economy are fugged over with cloud, occasionally rent by flashes of lightning and the impoverishing rumbling of thunder. Bright skies and stars of progress are nowhere to be found. The Scottish Government should be splitting its sinews striving to play the cloud-propeller, or at least, is advised to pretend it is doing so. No time for such constitutional gibbering, the sombre Iain Gray would insist, look to your people’s jobs, their livelihoods, hardworking families et al.

All well and good.

Yet simultaneously, the left head of the llama wants to insist that progress is being made. Thanks to the Westminster Government, the economy has been re-fertilised, the clouds brought rain, and the rain brought forth growth, and lo unto the people of Britain was restored prosperity, and Gordon Brown saw it, and said it was good, and it was. Shine out fair sun, etcetera.

The left head pulls one way, the right another. The stronger the pull exerted by the economically happier left head, the weaker the case against the independence referendum. After the gut-splattered butcher’s shop atmosphere which prevailing during the banking crisis, an eerie and distracted calm seems to have prevailing in how politics is talked about. Being trapped in the sticky web of Westminster expenses, the broader and substantive issues about the economic position seem to have wriggled free, and made a break for it. For Labour in the Scottish Parliament, the rhetorical discomfort associated with such an absconder is, to my mind, obvious.

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