Scotland’s independence is left in the hands of a ‘middle million’ of switherers
"It’s a great debate you get in a pub," says Laurence Brunton, landlord of the Castle Hotel on Dunbar High Street. The regular lunchtime contingent includes a few older characters who are ardently in favour of Scottish independence, but Brunton, a lifelong Labour supporter who voted for a Scottish parliament in 1997, has still to make up his own mind on the referendum question.
"I keep swithering, and I think a lot of people are the same. Are you better with the devil you know? One side says you’ll be this much better off, the other says this amount worse off. It’s a gamble."
Dunbar is a pretty market town in East Lothian with an evidently active community: civic week has just finished, and the bakery is supported by more than 740 local shareholders. The town is also home to a concentration of undecided voters, perhaps because lower levels of deprivation here mean that people have more to lose, perhaps because – as one resident puts – East Lothian "looks both ways", to Edinburgh and the bord
In a gallery across the street, Justine Brodie is similarly vexed. "My heart says yes but the realities are just not convincing me. The economics do worry me: I don’t want to be worse off than I am now."
A single parent who has struggled to find work since taking redundancy a few year ago, Brodie says: "It makes me really cross when the SNP [Scottish National party] go on about everything being on the up. I certainly don’t see that. When I’m looking at job adverts, everything is zero-hours contracts or so underpaid. I feel like it’s a leap of faith, but I need more than that."
Polling organisations estimate that more than a million Scots are still undecided or open to changing their minds either way on independence – a group known to campaigners as the middle million.
They are the battleground for the campaigns across the summer: the two main ones, Yes Scotland and Better Together, agree that about 30% of Scotland’s 4 million registered voters are fully committed to voting yes, while 40% are fully committed to voting no. The remaining 30% are the key to the referendum’s outcome and the focus of campaigning in the coming months. It seems that even the meaning of undecided is undecided. Polling companies usually pose their questions as if the referendum were happening tomorrow, but Mark Diffley, of Ipsos Mori’s Scotland office, believes that by some measures, nearly half the electorate have yet to commit their votes to one side or the other.
"We find that around one in 10 committed voters are entirely uncertain about how they would vote in an immediate referendum," says Diffley, "while a further 15% are leaning towards yes or no but tell us that they may change their minds before September.
"And when we add these two groups of undecided voters to the 20-25% who regularly tell us that they may not vote in the referendum, then nearly half of votes are up for grabs for both sides."
Lesley Riddoch, a broadcaster and the author of Blossom, an account of grassroots political movements in Scotland, says it’s not a lack of engagement that has left so many undecided: "Many ‘don’t knows’ may actually know too much to make a quick decision about independence."
For Brunton at the Castle Hotel, close assessment of the debate brings with it more contortions. "I still worry about where the revenue is coming from, in particular the actual costs of becoming independent. But that guy from the London School of Economics [Patrick Dunleavy] had one figure and then the Westminster government had another, and now Alex Salmond says that he can’t be specific until after the vote."
He says he would consider further devolved powers as an alternative to independence, because "central government is really about the south of England", but says that the pro-UK parties still do not seem to know what they’re offering. "It’s all guesswork. I keep thinking to myself, if I vote no is it a missed opportunity, but if I vote yes will I have made a terrible mistake? It’s quite a quandary."
It has become a trope of the campaign that women are more likely to be undecided than men, and this remains the case although a recent poll for Scotland on Sunday/ICM found a five-point increase in support for independence among female voters.
According to the most detailed study of the middle million to date, published by Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh in March, age seems to make little difference, although younger adults aged 25 to 34 were the most unsure, with 44% declaring themselves undecided. Those in middle and working-class occupations were just as likely to be undecided.
Although 48% of voters who do not identify with any party were undecided, as a whole this group is not dominated by the disengaged. In fact, Eichhorn found that at least half of those who were undecided would definitely vote in the referendum. Unexpectedly, just over a third of both Labour and SNP voters were yet to make up their minds. The clearest in their views were Tory voters: only 11% said they were unsure which way to vote, as were 15% of Lib Dem supporters.
In its efforts to better profile wavering voters, Yes Scotland asks people to put themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 on a white canvassing card to show how opposed or supportive they are to independence. The pro-UK Better Together uses a 1 to 5 scale on its canvassing cards, but it has also built up a huge database based on the voters’ roll to identify undecideds from information gathered from door-to-door contact as well as close analysis of data on voters based on where they live.
"The people in the middle are people who have pretty much said to themselves at the start of the debate ‘I’m going to follow this debate and make a rational, considered decision much closer to referendum day’," says Blair McDougall, the campaigns director of Better Together.
"The stereotype of the voters that matter that has been built up for whatever reason, largely by the other side, of over-50s male Labour voters or female Labour voters is wide of the mark. They’re much more likely to be female, more likely to be younger; slightly more likely to be public sector, but that’s probably just an indicator of the employment patterns of younger women in Scotland."
McDougall says that the middle million share a sense of anxiety around the decision. "That is not like a general election where you almost abdicate responsibility to the party that you vote for [to make decisions on your behalf], they understand that they’ve got to get it right [in the referendum]."
It’s precisely this anxiety that Agnes Wilson, a volunteer at the RNLI charity shop in Dunbar, reflects when she explains her own indecision. "I think women in particular don’t find this easy. You just want peace," she says.
"I worry about the divisions: you see these silly people on the internet, then there’s the division with England and sometimes even east/west in Scotland. A lot of questions are still unanswered," she tells me.
"It’s such an important decision, not just for us but for future generations. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in because it’s such a massive responsibility. I’m thinking an awful lot about it."
But the middle million present another challenge to the pro-UK parties: Eichhorn found that this cohort includes many voters who back devolution but want substantial autonomy for Scotland within the UK – the option known as "devo max".
He calculates that 45% of voters who support devo max and 40% of those who wanted an extra devolution question on the referendum ballot paper remain undecided, which suggests they could be persuaded to back independence if the UK parties fail to deliver a strong enough alternative.
Stephen Noon, chief strategist for Yes Scotland, identifies a shift in thinking among undecideds in recent months from bigger picture questions about independence to a tighter focus on what it would mean in their own lives, in terms of jobs and family budgets.
This chimes with the messages that Yes Scotland believes are working best with the middle million, the "wealthy nation mindset" as Noon describes it: "This is the idea that Scotland is a wealthy nation, not just in terms of finances but also resources and talent, and making the shift [for undecided voters] from this meaning that Scotland can be independent, to Scotland should be independent."
But he emphasises that reaching the middle million is less about identifying undecideds from Yes Scotland central office and more a case of local grassroots activists speaking to those who have yet to make up their minds or are "soft nos" within their own circles. (The same Scotland on Sunday/ICM survey found that 71% of yes voters said they were having lots of conversations with family and friends about the referendum, compared with 55% of no voters.)
But important as the wavering devo-max adherent is to the campaign, the middle million also includes some of Scotland’s most disengaged voters. Eichhorn found that nearly 50% of those who said they were not at all interested in politics and nearly 50% of those with little or no knowledge of the case for independence were undecided.
The Radical Independence Campaign, a coalition of greens, socialists and nuclear disarmament campaigners, has made reaching – and registering – these voters its stated aim and last weekend held a national mass canvas in housing estates across the country, reaching some 10,000 homes in the biggest single day of action that the referendum campaign has seen so far.
Craig Paterson, one of the organisers of the mass canvas, makes a distinction between the undecided and the uninterested. "These are people who are switched off from mainstream politics, and who think that politicians live in a completely separate world," he says.
"It’s about letting them know that while they might think that their vote doesn’t matter, it actually does this time. Independence is not a magic wand: it’s what we do with it afterwards that counts. You must engage these people in a way that makes them want to stay engaged."
With registration open until 2 September, there is technically still time for voters like these to get on the roll. But convincing them that the referendum debate, which is generating such energy, passion and soul-searching elsewhere, has anything to offer them or any relevance to their lives is another matter.
As the canvassing teams fanned out across the south side of Glasgow, one group tackled a 23-storey tower block on Caledonia Road in the Gorbals. This particular team was led by the Women for Independence activist Kathleen Caskie, who imparted the invaluable advice that, by getting the lift to the top floor and working your way down, not only are you saving your knees but you’ll also have more favourable momentum should you have to run away from a dog.
The Gorbals has been through a number of regenerations since the days when it was home to Glasgow’s notorious razor gangs, and the setting for the novel No Mean City. But, chapping on about 120 doors across a couple of hours, about half of those the canvassers spoke to were either undecided or uninterested in casting a vote for either side.
A number of mainly older residents had little notion that the referendum campaign was even happening, as well as mainly younger males who were pretty forceful in their determination not to vote at all. There’s little the canvassing team can do in the face of a closing door except offer one of the voting registration forms they carry with them.
One elderly woman told them that she had never voted in her life and did not intend to now. "What about the woman who fell under a horse to get you the vote?" asked Caskie, in vain.