Glasgow, United Kingdom – It is a yearly celebration of one of Scotland’s most favourite sons, an event that sees Scots indulge in a feast of merriment incorporating a traditional helping of haggis, neeps and tatties – and reams of poetry.
Burns Night, a literary homage to Scotland’s national bard – or poet – Robert Burns and, held on his birthday, one of the most iconic dates on the Scottish calendar, will today unite Scots from all corners of the globe. This Burns Night marks exactly 255 years since the man who composed the world-renowned Auld Lang Syne in 1788 was welcomed into the world – but as modern Scotland prepares to go to the polls on September 18 to decide whether to become an independent country and leave the United Kingdom, Scottish nationalists and unionists might be forgiven for having more than Burns’ poetry on their mind.
Yet, as both sides of the divide – and those many undecided – raise a glass to this most flamboyant of Scotsmen, it is those in the nationalist camp with the most to do as they look to claw back lost ground in a constitutional race, where, for the first year since the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament election of May 2011, the finishing line of the referendum itself is in plain sight.
“Large parts of institutional Scotland – apart from the SNP Scottish government obviously – don’t like independence, so we’re at a point where we’re entering a referendum in which not one newspaper supports independence,” said Gerry Hassan, a Scottish political thinker and author of the forthcoming book, Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland. “And despite the newspaper industry being a significantly declining resource, that really matters. So, over the last two years, that has framed the long run of this campaign – and I think that has left the [pro-independence] Yes Scotland campaign in a very difficult place. Independence wasn’t really seriously thought about until May 2011… and I’m very cautious about whether they can reclaim that lost ground in this very short period.”
That said, and despite Scottish opinion polls putting support for independence – excluding “undecideds” – at 40 percent, and the union at 60 percent, the pro-independence movement remains curiously buoyant, say many analysts.
“On one hand, they’re behind in the polls, and yet whenever you speak to people involved and hear all the noise from the Yes side, there is great optimism,” James Mitchell, a public policy professor and ESRC Fellow at The University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera. “Part of the reason for this is that they’ve been very active on the ground – preparing the ground war – and they claim, and, as much as we can see, they seem to be correct in claiming, to be more organised on the ground and more active on the ground… Whether they can close the gap over the next eight months is an unknown – and it seems a difficult one for them to do – but the fascinating thing is they seem to genuinely believe they can.”
The pro-union Better Together camp, incorporating the Scottish Labour Party, Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Conservatives, has been accused of running a relentlessly negative campaign by many observers. Yet, as the perceived underdogs in the race, how might the Scottish government and Yes Scotland – an umbrella organisation featuring the SNP, Scottish Green Party and Scottish Socialist Party – take the fight to a pro-union movement, which has used robust tactics in their attempt to preserve the 307-year-old union with England?
Mitchell contends that while the pro-independence camp has repeatedly pressed home their message of hope over fear in their drive to persuade Scots to vote for an independent Scotland – “there are key strategists in Yes Scotland who take the strong view that positive campaigning works”, he said. Could a little negativity of their own could go a long way to bridging the gap?
“Negative campaigning can work,” he continued. “But there are different forms of negative campaigning. If negative campaigning is simply personalised abuse then that can backfire spectacularly. But there’s no doubt that questioning your opponents can work – and I wonder whether at some point we will begin to see the Yes side be more negative in their campaigning.”
So far this year, there are already signs of the pro-independence movement going on the offensive. In response to an attack by the UK government’s Scottish secretary, Alistair Carmichael, who called the Scottish government’s 670-page blueprint for independence, published last November, a “mirage”, Scotland’s SNP deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, published a list of 50 questions – which she said those leading the Better Together campaign must answer about the consequences of voting No in the referendum, such as: “How many more children will be living in poverty in Scotland in 2020 as a result of Westminster policies?”
This subtle change of approach by the Yes camp notwithstanding, many observers believe that their core strength still lies in their ability to lay out an appealing vision of the future.
“The No campaign has managed to put [Scotland’s SNP first minister] Alex Salmond on the back foot over questions like the currency and the exact terms and timing of Scotland’s membership of the European Union… but they’ve not been as good at telling a story,” Alex Massie, a Scottish political commentator and prominent blogger for The Spectator, told Al Jazeera.
“The nationalists have a good story – that ‘Scotland is a country, that decisions that affect the people of Scotland should whenever possible be made in Scotland, that we accept there is a measure of pooling of sovereignty in the European Union, but Brussels, London, Edinburgh is just too long an address, let’s cut out the middle man’. It’s quite a powerful argument.”
A Better Together-commissioned poll at the beginning of this month added further intrigue to the independence debate. In a three-way question, the poll suggested that 29 percent of people in Scotland supported the status quo, 30 percent independence and 32 percent more powers for the Scottish parliament within the UK. For many commentators, it was this latter category that held most interest.
“The crucial element in the electorate will be that element that wants more powers – how they essentially split in the referendum will be the key to the outcome of the referendum,” explains Mitchell, who also says that in “all the polls” there is “not a great endorsement of the union”.
Massie said that, while current evidence clearly suggests that the Scottish government and Yes Scotland have it all to do in the next eight months, the political drive of Scotland’s first minister alone could take it to the wire.
“The mere fact that the referendum is happening, of course, makes a Yes vote more probable, and the mere fact that the question is being asked is a testament to Salmond’s achievement,” he said. “He’s taken a party that was once a laughing stock and on the fringes of mainstream political debate… to a state where they are now, in many respects, the political establishment in Scotland. But, whether he can carry them across the finishing line, I don’t know.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi