By David Torrance

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus in which a scientist asserts that rather than being descended from apes, human beings have actually evolved from alien life forms. When another character asks her if she has any basis for that assertion she replies, quite simply, “no”, adding, “but it’s what I choose to believe”.

I mention this because I have a funny feeling the “no” campaign is currently developing what might be called a Prometheus strategy. At a recent First Minister’s Question Time the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont accused Alex Salmond of basing his vision of an independent Scotland on “assertion, belief and hope” rather than fact.

The official “no” – or as they would have it, the “yes to the UK” – campaign, reportedly preparing to launch later this month, will probably continue this refrain, questioning the basis for the SNP’s stance on a whole range of issues, for example currency and the European Union, with the implication that it is predicated upon wishful thinking.

The aim will be to undermine the “yes” campaign’s strategy of emphasizing stability and continuity, while planting seeds of doubt in voters’ minds. As for the launch itself, I reckon this will be pitched about half way between a regular party political press conference and the glitzy (if rather lame) “yes” launch of a few weeks ago.

It’s no secret that the “no” side are still playing catch up in almost every respect. While the SNP (which now forms the core of the “yes” campaign) has had since last May to prepare its case for independence, proponents of the status quo have only recently recruited the former Labour Party strategist Blair McDougall, not to mention arranged opinion polling and funding.

Its instinct will, I suspect, to be to go for the jugular. After all, negative campaigning can work, as anyone involved in the fruitless attempt to convert UK voters to the Alternative Vote back in 2011 can testify. As Peter Kellner of YouGov has argued, the general trend during referendums is that those advocating change – particularly radical change – tend to lose ground as the campaign progresses.

Unless, therefore, the “yes” campaign enters the formal referendum campaign in 2014 with a strong lead, then it has a slim hope of winning the independence battle. That said, the opinion polls were wrong about levels of SNP support in April/May 2011 and could well be wrong again. The SNP’s sophisticated Activate software will have a pretty good idea of how many Scots are likely to back sovereignty, not only now, but over the next two-and-a-half years.

So what are the likely strengths and weaknesses of the “no” campaign, whatever it ends up being called? I think in personnel terms the mooted line up – former Chancellor Alistair Darling, former Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie and former UK Liberal leader Charles Kennedy – will be, broadly speaking, a strength. Kennedy, in particular, still polls well with normal people, and when on form can put a political case with wit and authority.

The “yes” side’s chief asset is, of course, Alex Salmond, whose approval ratings continue to put just about everybody else’s in the shade. And while Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie has so far performed well, the “no” campaign’s trio of big-hitters probably has the edge – at least at the moment. The SNP’s attempt to discredit Darling as the man who destroyed the UK economy lacks credibility (Salmond, after all, did not demur from the pre-2008 economic orthodoxy), while the former Chancellor’s cool authority should prove a match for the First Minister.

The “no” campaign’s other major strength, at the moment, is having public opinion on its side. Despite the events of January, most notably the Prime Minister’s intervention over the referendum, there has been no real movement in the proportion of Scots intending to vote “yes” and “no”. Indeed, a recent YouGov poll, mischievously released to coincide with the “yes” launch, put support for independence at 33 per cent.

This was not disputed by Alex Salmond on the day, for it had a large sample size (1,500) and the SNP fully realizes there’s work to be done; only a couple of recent polls have put the “yes” vote above 40 per cent, but those had tiny sample sizes (100 or 200) which mean they’re difficult to take seriously.

The weaknesses in the “no” campaign, meanwhile, could emerge over the next couple of years. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the consensus between the UK Coalition and Labour Party about welfare cuts will not play in their favour. Although the SNP’s alternative is vague and ill-defined, it’s indisputably the case that most Scots don’t like what Iain Duncan Smith is proposing. And as those cuts – and indeed others – begin to bite closer to the referendum, the “yes” campaign could reap the benefits.

Another negative is the lack of a positive, compelling argument for the United Kingdom (although who knows, perhaps this will be unveiled at the “no” launch). Now there might not be a compelling argument against the UK either, but the “yes” camp have, I think, the edge in terms of momentum, aspiration and language. Negative points against your opponents – as the SNP know well – only work if masked by a broadly positive narrative.

Finally, I reckon the all-important ground war poses problems for both sides. Although those in the “yes” campaign are more likely to get fired up by their cause, what they’re being asked to sell (the Independence Declaration) is rather abstract, while voters’ desire for detail is unlikely to be satisfied. Those on the “no” side, meanwhile, have tended to take the status quo (i.e. the Union) for granted, and might struggle to campaign for a constitutional position rather than a political party.

For both sides, the stakes are high. If the “no” campaign fails to challenge the “yes” side’s superior electoral machine it will mean the end of Great Britain, while a decisive “no” vote would spell the end of Alex Salmond’s impressive political career. As the movie posters for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus puts it, “the search for our beginning could lead to our end”.

David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of 'Salmond - Against The Odds' a biography of Scotland's First Minister

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