How Salmond is using EU uncertainty to boost Scottish independence

The Scottish First Minister is encouraged by a new poll showing that support for independence dramatically increases when the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU is raised.

While Westminster has fixated on an EU referendum that may or may not take place in 2017, rather less attention has been paid to a referendum that is certain to happen, that on Scottish independence next year. 

With the Yes campaign behind in the polls, the SNP is attempting to regain the initiative by launching a new paper on the economic case for independence. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pointed to six areas in which she claims Westminster is "is hindering Scotland's potential". They are:

- The decision by the last two UK governments to cut capital spending, which would have supported an extra 19,000 jobs in Scotland. 

- Westminster's failure to store oil revenues in a sovereign wealth fund, comparable to that in Norway, now worth an estimated £450bn.

- The debt and credit boom presided over by the last Labour government. 

- The increase in income inequality witnessed under every government since Margaret Thatcher's. 

- The concentration of economy activity in London at the expense of the rest of the UK. 

- The coalition government's decision to pursue austerity, rather than a growth-led economic strategy. 

After seeing off Nigel Farage last week, Alex Salmond was in ebullient form on the Today programme this morning, rattling off statistics showing that over the last five years, an independent Scotland would have been £8bn better off and that over the last 30 years, Scotland had contributed more per head in taxation than the UK average. 

The First Minister went on to offer a clue to his improved mood when he cited a new poll showing that while the Yes campaign trails the No campaign by 44 to 36 points (a smaller gap than in some others), when the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU is raised the two sides draw level on 44 points each. The poll showed that while the issue of EU withdrawal has little effect on those Scots who have already made up their mind, among undecided voters three times as many support independence as oppose it under those circumstances. "I would say it's all to play for," Salmond concluded. On that point, he is right. The biggest advantage that Salmond has is time. By September 2014, he hopes that the full force of the coalition's spending cuts, less than half of which have been introduced, will have persuaded Scotland that the time is right to go it alone.

Incidentally, on the EU, it's worth noting an important story in today's FT, which reports that Germany plans to avoid the full scale renegotiation that David Cameron hopes to use to repatriate powers from Brussels. It notes that while Merkel is sympathetic to Cameron's desire to improve Europe's economic competitiveness, "she is convinced that this can only be done by improving the process of European decision-making and not simply by repatriating powers to national capitals." So long as this remains the case, it will be difficult for Cameron to persuade his ever more eurosceptic party that is should vote to stay in. And that, as Salmond knows, plays into his hands. 

Scotland's First Minister and Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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