Belfast Telegraph

Scottish referendum: London sells us short in buying No vote

A No vote in the Scottish referendum that led to a one-sided extension of economic powers to Edinburgh would have major implications for Northern Ireland, writes George Kerevan

For months, the Scottish independence referendum campaign has been in gridlock. Opinions polls were frozen, with a solid 57% wanting to keep the Union and 43% seeking Scottish self-government (when undecided are excluded). It looked like game, set and match to the official Better Together Campaign led by Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Independence activists, whom everyone concedes have a more active door-to-door campaign, were getting worried.

Now, suddenly, with just over two weeks until the historic vote on September 18, the outcome has been thrown wide open, with a four point rise in support for Yes. The game-changer was the commanding performance of SNP leader Alex Salmond in his second television debate with Darling.

In an earlier TV duel between the two men, Darling surprised media pundits and his Tory critics in London (who think he's not combative enough) with dogged questioning of Salmond on the currency question – a cross-examination that seemed to rattle the Scottish First Minister.

Darling repeatedly demanded to know Salmond's Plan B if the rest of the UK rejects his call for keeping a joint pound after Scottish independence. The discussion degenerated into an ill-tempered shouting match between the two politicians, which turn off undecided voters, especially in the business community.

In the second television debate, Salmond returned to form – he is widely acknowledged, even by opponents, to be one of the best parliamentary debaters of his generation.

He gave more convincing answers on the currency question, explaining how it was in the interest of everyone in the British Isles to be able to trade freely with each other using the same pound notes.

He also pointed out that if Scotland was excluded from using the Bank of England to support its banking system, then the new nation's taxpayers could not be expected to take on part of the UK Treasury's national debt.

Salmond also seemed more presidential in the second debate, while Darling lost points by refusing to say exactly what extra devolved powers the Scottish parliament would get if voters agreed to stay in the Union.

Overnight polls indicated that nearly two-thirds of all viewers who watched the second debate felt that Salmond won the encounter. Even more important, 35% of the undecided viewers felt more inclined to vote Yes, while only 9% went to No.

Salmond's victory over Darling registered in the first full poll of voting intentions following the debate, which showed big jump in support for independence. Once Don't Knows are excluded, Yes are on 47%. It now requires only a three-point swing to draw level. Prime Minister David Cameron told the Daily Mail he was "nervous" about the outcome on September 18.

He has cause to be. His visit to Glasgow a few days after the second TV debate, to address a dinner organised by the Confederation of British Industry, ended in humiliation when CBI president Sir Mike Rake used the occasion to warn that the real danger to Scotland's and Britain's businesses comes not from Alex Salmond but from the Prime Minister's promise to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership.

Rake's rebuke came on the same day that Tory MP Douglas Carswell defected to Ukip, underling the danger.

Scottish businesses are increasingly worried about the possibility of Brexit, a British exit from Europe, their biggest foreign market. Many business people are contemplating a Yes vote, on the grounds that the SNP is firmly committed to membership of the European Union.

It is also important to remember that there are 160,000 EU citizens working or studying in Scotland – and they have a vote in the independence referendum.

The letters pages of Scottish newspapers have become a public battleground for local business chiefs, with the rival camps signing calls for support.

First came the No side, with 130 business luminaries, including Douglas Flint, chairman of HSBC bank. HSBC has a tiny presence in Scotland and it was alleged that Mr Flint was using his role in the Better Together campaign to curry favour with Downing Street.

The Yes side instantly responded with 200 business leaders declaring their support for independence, including Stagecoach boss Brian Souter, former RBS head George Mathewson and oil expert Sir Donald Mackay.

The referendum has resulted in odd bedfellows. While most traditional Scottish socialists are campaigning for an anti-Tory Yes vote, maverick Left-winger George Galloway has mounted his own one-man No campaign. Bizarrely, this has included speaking at meetings of Edinburgh lawyers organised by the Right-wing Spectator magazine.

Even the Liberal Democrats are divided. Judy Steel, wife of Sir David Steel, is campaigning enthusiastically for a Yes, while her husband is a No, though an enthusiast for more radical devolution.

It is on the vexed question of more devolution for Scotland that the outcome may hinge. Momentum now seems to lie with the independence movement, encouraged by Salmond's debate success. In a last-ditch effort to dissuade Scottish voters from independence, David Cameron is offering to give the Scottish Parliament greater control over taxes.

He has gone even further than Labour's Ed Miliband, with a proposal to hand over complete control of income tax in Scotland to the Scottish government, plus a share of VAT proceeds and even increased responsibility for deciding welfare policy.

Any one-sided extension of economic powers to Scotland within the Union clearly has implications for Northern Ireland and the other UK regions. This has prompted calls for a Royal Commission to examine the case for a new constitutional settlement, with more devolution across the whole of the UK.

While that is fair, few would bet on such a Royal Commission resulting in a workable political consensus that suited every part of the UK. It would also open up the question of a separate legislature for England, which the Tories don't want to face.

Even if a Royal Commission produced a plan, it would be years in the making. Any such hiatus would make Scots voters feel betrayed.

As it is, there is a general feeling in Scotland that a No victory on September 18 will not end calls for independence, especially if the vote is close. Scotland and mainstream English society are growing apart in political outlook, especially now NHS services in England are being put out to private tender.

This would prove a constitutional flashpoint if NHS spending is cut in England and the devolved Scottish parliament is told to raise taxes if it wants to keep a welfare state.

Expect Alex Salmond and his troops to press that point hard in the final days of the campaign.

George Kerevan is a well-known Scottish journalist and broadcaster. He is co-author (with Alan Cochrane) of Scottish Independence: Yes or No (The History Press)

Belfast Telegraph


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