Scottish nationalists look to broaden debate beyond currency

Less than a month to go before vote on independence, Salmond attempts to switch focus

First minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, smiles during the last first ministers questions before September 18th independence referendum.  Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

First minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, smiles during the last first ministers questions before September 18th independence referendum. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 13:14

With less than a month to go until Scotland votes on independence, nationalists are seeking to broaden the debate away from a difficult focus on what currency would be used after breaking from the United Kingdom.

Health care and other social issues such as justice and equality are likely to get a bigger airing if pro-independence first minister Alex Salmond has his way in a second televised debate on August 25th.

The question of whether Scotland could keep the pound if it voted on September 18th to leave the UK has hampered independence campaigners.

The British government and Bank of England have both firmly said no. As a result, uncertainty over the currency dogged the normally fiery Mr Salmond in the first TV debate two weeks ago when he was unexpectedly outshone by the more reserved head of the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, former finance minister Alistair Darling.

But disappointment over Mr Salmond’s performance following the first debate was pushed aside last weekend when two polls showed the gap in support narrowing with a two-point swing to the independence camp.

An ICM poll had support for independence at 38 per cent versus 47 per cent opposition, while a Panelbase survey put backing for independence at 42 per cent compared to 46 per cent.

The pro-independence vote continues to lag in all major polls, but Mr Salmond has been trying to leverage the latest swing in support by blitzing the media on topics that might sway undecided voters.

He warned, for example, that the publicly funded free health service might be at risk if Scotland stays in the union, but that it could be enshrined in the constitution of an independent Scotland.

The current devolved Scottish parliament, led by Mr Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP), controls health policy.

But Mr Salmond says the dependence of Scotland’s budget on an allowance from politicians in London makes it vulnerable.

“If we stay in our current circumstances ... we will find it progressively more difficult to keep a health service free at the point of need,” he told a public meeting this week at Arbroath on the east coast where Scotland signed an historic declaration of independence in 1320.

British prime minister David Cameron, who opposes independence, described the argument as “desperate”, arguing that UK spending on health care had been protected during the term of his coalition government, which came to power in 2010.

Britain’s three major political parties have united against a breakaway Scotland, issuing pleas for unity and warning about the economic costs of independence to the four million Scottish residents over the age of 16 who can vote on September 18th.

Reuters