Sunday 7 September 2014

Scotland's Vote 17: Poll Position

Today, for the first time, a mainstream poll has put Yes in the lead. The Sunday Times reports Yes 51%, No 49%, excluding undecided voters.

Here are my immediate reactions, in no particular order.

Congratulations are in order for the Yes campaign. Until a few weeks ago, No had a stubborn lead of between 10 and 20 points in the polls. It would have been very easy for Yes supporters to despair. Instead, they fought on with enthusiasm. It's impossible to know precisely what brought about this change in the polls, but some of the credit must lie with committed and energetic Yes campaigners.

The usual margin of error in polls is 3%. We will probably see some statistically illiterate commentary which claims any lead of less than 3% is meaningless, and the race is too close to call. In fact that margin for error is a 95% confidence interval, so with a 2% lead and 3% margin for error, there is a 95% chance that Yes is somewhere between 54% and 48%. Very roughly, there is less than one chance in three that No is still in the lead. These are not odds you would bet the farm on, but the chances are high that Yes is narrowly ahead.

No matter who wins the referendum, I hope the result is clear and decisive. A 51-49 split in either direction would be all right; but if this is settled by 100 votes, then almost certainly there would be legal challenges which dragged on for months. It would leave the eventual winner with a shaky and uncertain mandate to govern Scotland.

Back in July, I observed that about one-third of Scottish voters had expressed a positive opinion of the SNP government in Holyrood, but intended to vote No. I surmised they were willing to give the Yes side a fair hearing, but had not been convinced of the merits of independence. It seems the Yes campaign has convinced some of them. Not all but any means, but enough to make this into a contest; the SNP has had approval ratings of up to +23, while the current Yes lead is +2. By the same token, many potential supporters remain, so the Yes campaign could widen its lead.

If the No campaign wins, I believe a close win would be more beneficial than a narrow one. The former might just motivate the UK government into enacting serious reforms. These reforms could grant more autonomy to Scotland, and also protect its powers from being altered at the whim of the ruling party in Westminster.

The so-called devo max option entails greatly increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. If it had been on the ballot paper, it would have been extremely popular. If there is a very narrow majority for No, it might shock Westminster into implementing something like devo-max anyway.

I think the narrowing lead is a good thing. I don't want No to win by default. I don't necessarily want No to win at all, I am not committed to one side or the other. Let the winner be a group who had to fight for it. Let them try their hardest and deploy their very best and most persuasive arguments.  Let each voter make a positive choice, knowing that the result could plausibly go either way. Scotland deserves nothing less.

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