Ian Swanson: Battle for devo max vote holds key

The independence vote is now a closely fought battle. Picture: Getty
The independence vote is now a closely fought battle. Picture: Getty
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WITH seven months to go to referendum day, it looks as if the independence debate has finally grabbed the attention of the rest of the UK.

Scotland’s future suddenly seems to be the hot topic on everyone’s lips.

Chancellor George Osborne has taken to the stage to insist there would be no currency union after a Yes vote.

And in a television interview, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso claimed it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to get the necessary approval from the EU’s existing member states to join.

These interventions follow Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s speech in Edinburgh – warning a currency union would mean the surrender of some sovereignty but promising to make it work if that’s what the politicians decide – and David Cameron’s curious “phone a friend” speech, urging people in England to contact Scots to tell them “We want you to stay”.

Opinion polls suggest the gap between Yes and No is narrowing.

And as the big day looms closer, the implications of a vote for independence are being discussed everywhere – from breakfast TV to the Financial Times.

Mr Osborne’s pronouncement – dubbed the “Sermon on the Pound” by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – and Mr Barroso’s remarks were hailed variously as “devastating”, “another blow for Salmond”, “the biggest challenge of his career” and leaving the SNP’s plans “in tatters”.

But Alex Salmond believes Mr Osborne’s comments, in particular, will backfire. “I think the No campaign is in for a severe shock as they see the political effect of the reaction of Scotland who don’t like being bullied, least of all by a Tory Chancellor,” he says.

And polling guru Professor John Curtice suggests any reduction in support for independence as a result of the interventions might be less than expected because people have already taken on board the idea that Scotland might not be able to share the pound or get an easy entry to the EU.

The UK Government – and Labour – had already declared a currency union was “unlikely”. Mr Osborne’s declaration was more increased stubbornness than bolt from the blue. And Mr Barroso’s point that Spain might not want to reward Scotland for a split from the UK for fear of encouraging separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country had also been widely aired. So despite the fuss, the latest forays may make little difference.

Meanwhile, perhaps the Yes camp should be more worried about that latest batch of figures from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey.

The headline statistics look encouraging for independence supporters – “devo max” emerges as the most popular option with 32 per cent support; independence is close behind on 31 per cent; with the status quo trailing on 25 per cent. The battle for those devo max votes holds the key to the referendum.

The SNP seized on the findings to point out 63 per cent of people wanted Scotland to have full control of tax and welfare policies – either through devo max or independence. Their argument is that only a Yes vote can deliver that.

But when people were asked their second preference, supporters of devo max – which is not on the ballot paper – were three times more likely to opt for the status quo than independence.

However, the good news for pro-independence campaigners is the survey dates back to last year – and this looks more and more like a fast-changing campaign.