THE BLOG

Scotland's Dance Between Yes and No

03/03/2014 10:26 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 10:59 BST

Political campaigns must be driven, maintain message discipline and have a stroke or two of luck along the way in order to succeed. Ballet is, in many senses, very similar; it requires dedication, almost unparalleled discipline and, of course, a healthy dose of natural ability. In the world of ballet, most principals (the top dancers) tell their stories in three act masterpieces, weaving a powerful story through the subtly of dance.

Likewise with political campaigns. In the first Act, the groundwork for all that is to come must be laid. In Act II, the arguments are deployed, messages refined, target audiences honed and information filtered in order to find the wedge issues that will deliver the desired result. Then, in the final Act, a campaign delivers the final blows building towards a grand finale that, they hope, will see their side to victory. Even in the modern world of Big Data elections, political campaigning remains an art. Constructing the message, timing the delivery and reacting to the unexpected rely on the instinct of the campaign leadership, albeit increasingly aided by better data on voters.

With polling day for the vote on Scottish Independence nearly seven months away (on September 18th), the campaign is firmly in Act II. Polls conducted in the last week show a slightly confused picture - the No vote is still clearly ahead but the lead seems to be narrowing.

This will cheer Better Together, who have launched a co-ordinated strike against Yes Scotland, calling into question the SNP's plans to retain sterling, join the European Union and maintain investment in the hallowed North Sea oilfields. Their Campaign Director Blair McDougall said recently:

"Our experience and our understanding of what the million undecided voters in the middle who'll decide the referendum are really interested in is the big question of economics; so, what currency we'll use,[and] what [independence will] mean for their cost of living..."

Clearly, therefore, the shape of the No campaign will continue to be a negative one, relentlessly seeking to discredit the economic case for independence and, where possible, emphasising the positive stability Scotland enjoys as part of the United Kingdom.

Yes Scotland is employing a sophisticated voter targeting operation, using a ten point system to identify how much work needs done on each voter to move them towards the Yes side. This is the system used by Barack Obama in his much admired 2008 and 2012 campaigns. So whilst the Scottish Government is engaged in the daily media battle - hitting back against the "bullying" tactics on the question of sterling and putting forward their own argument on North Sea oil - their activists are busy on the ground. Yes Scotland's Chief Executive, Blair Jenkins, described the goal:

"If we can get all of Scotland in a conversation about this referendum, as close to a one-on-one conversation as we possibly can with everyone on the electoral register, that's how we win."

The shape of the campaign going into Act III is set. Over the summer, and informed by increasing amounts of data, both sides will target an ever decreasing pool of undecided voters. Better Together will continue to focus on undermining the credibility of the economic case for independence and Yes Scotland's plan is to conduct a sophisticated ground game informing and influencing voters in the hope of moving them into the Yes camp.

In ballet, Act III sees the principals conclude the performance with a flourish. Having taken the audience on a journey begun in the first Act, their last task is to finish the show with a bang. Of course, a mistake at this stage is the most unforgivable of all - not only does it dispel the magic of the occasion, it also leaves the audience with a deep sense of disappointment. In short, the show has been ruined.

Whilst no-one would pretend that Alex Salmond or Alistair Darling, the respective political heads of Yes Scotland and Better Together, are analogous to ballet dancers, the role they will play in the final stages of the campaign will be similar. It will fall to Salmond and Darling to lead the argument from summer until polling day and, with the polls narrowing, any misstep from either man could fatally damage their chances of victory.

What remains now is to see how Act III - this dance between yes and no that will decide the future of the United Kingdom - ends.