Telling the Scots what to do is a risky strategy

There’s now less than seven months to go until Scotland’s vote on whether to become an independent country. According to the opinion polls, Scots have not warmed to the idea: a vote of about 60%-40% against independence is consistently being indicated. (See one recent poll here.)

But the opponents of independence are clearly not taking anything for granted. Last week they wheeled out a big gun, with Conservative chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne warning that an independent Scotland would not be able to retain the British pound sterling as its currency. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both backed him up.

Then on Sunday it was the turn of the European Union, with the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, warning that Scotland would find it very difficult to stay in the EU if it broke away from the United Kingdom. Apparently reading from the same sheet as the Spanish prime minister, Barroso (who is from Portugal) said Scotland would have to reapply for membership:

We have seen Spain has been opposing even the recognition of Kosovo, for instance. So it is to some extent a similar case because it’s a new country and so I believe it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, a new member state coming out of our countries getting the agreement of the others.

The Scottish nationalists are unimpressed with either argument. The Europeans are a bit too obviously motivated by the threat of parallel cases (primarily Catalonia, although some may now also be thinking about Ukraine), and their arguments are disputable. Yesterday a former director-general of the Commission, Jim Currie, told a committee of the Scottish parliament that Barroso’s statement was “inaccurate”. “We’re dealing with people who would have certain rights as EU citizens and which would be very difficult to take away, and nobody would want to.”

But it’s the claims about the pound that have really got the Scots going. Chief minister Alex Salmond says that forcing Scotland to create a different currency would impose a cost of “many hundreds of millions of pounds” on English businesses (although of course the cost to Scottish businesses would be proportionately much larger), and that this would be impossible to sell politically. For all the bluster now, he claims, in reality the two sides would negotiate an amicable arrangement if Scotland voted for independence.

For what it’s worth, I think he’s probably right. What people say in the course of a campaign like this is not a very good indicator of how they’ll actually behave afterwards. Moreover, it’s not clear that the pound is that big of an issue for most voters: a poll this week in the  Scottish Daily Mail finds only 48% of Scots actually want a currency union in the first place, and even among those who plan to vote “yes”, only 45% believe it will happen.

What’s more interesting is the whole tactic of English politicians telling the Scots what they should do. Since national pride is the very thing that’s at issue, it would seem it has the potential to backfire rather badly. And some have taken this most recent poll as a sign of exactly that, with deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon saying “It is clear that there has been a severe backlash to George Osborne’s bluster and threats on the pound – with more than half of the No campaign’s lead wiped out in just three weeks”.

In fact it’s not quite as simple as that. As the polling company, Survation, explains, it has changed its weighting methodology and therefore its current results are not really comparable with previous ones. The numbers actually suggest only a modest movement in favor of independence, comparable to other polls conducted in the last month. In any case, the results from just one poll always need to be taken with extreme caution.

But it’s at least clear that Osborne’s intervention so far is not doing opponents of independence much good. Rather than such pre-emptive strikes, they would probably be better advised to keep quiet and rely on natural Scottish caution to continue to tilt the scales against independence.

Alternatively, it may be that the Conservative Party is secretly in two minds about the referendum, and that at some level the Tories would be just as happy for the Scots to go their separate way – since it would be a huge boost to their chances of winning a majority in their own right in what remained. In which case, perhaps George Osborne is on the right track.

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