The eurozone crisis might make the nationalists’ plans for loosening Scotland’s ties to the UK look increasingly unattractive
Things have been going Alex Salmond’s way since the Scottish National Party landslide in the Holyrood elections in May 2011. His personal popularity ratings are still higher than those of all the rival party leaders put together. The anti-nationalist parties have yet to come up with a coherent campaign for the forthcoming independence referendum. The nearest they have come so far is a ‘tea and biscuits’ summit at the Edinburgh home of the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling. It included representatives, but not leaders, of the Scottish opposition parties.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s own personal campaign to save the UK, launched in Scotland in February, petered out in confusion when he appeared to promise greater powers for the Scottish Parliament than his own Scottish Conservative Party colleagues were prepared to concede. It was beginning to look like plain sailing for the SNP in the run-up to the referendum on independence in autumn 2014. Commentators were beginning to write the UK’s obituary. But perhaps they should hit the pause button, because, beneath the surface, there are serious problems facing the SNP’s project to end the UK.
In the May local elections, Labour stormed to victory in Glasgow and fended off the SNP in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, dashing the SNP’s hopes of becoming the largest party in all three cities. This was more of a presentational setback for Salmond than a psephological one – the SNP increased its overall share of the Scottish vote – but it does suggest that the party’s momentum may be fading.
Critics blamed Salmond’s apparent willingness to lobby on behalf of Rupert Murdoch in his bid to take over BSkyB. The first minister insists that he was only lobbying for Scottish jobs, but few outside the party believe him. The new Labour leader, Johann Lamont, scored an early success at First Minister’s Questions, claiming that Salmond had been ‘played for a fool’ by Murdoch. But a much more worrying problem is emerging on the referendum timetable than embarrassment over the first minister’s choice of friends.
The possible departure of Greece from the eurozone might not appear to have any immediate consequences for Scotland, but the insecurity and turmoil that would result could make it very difficult to persuade Scots that they should leave the UK. Of course, the SNP is not proposing to leave the sterling zone and insists that Scotland would keep the pound until there could be a referendum on joining the euro. But every Scottish voter has heard the SNP’s slogan ‘Independence in Europe’ and understands that the party sees Scotland’s future lying in Europe and not in the UK.
But Europe isn’t looking such a good bet at the moment. Even if Greece remains in the eurozone, the next two years are beginning to resemble the 2008 financial crisis, except this time the focus will not be on failing banks, but failing countries. Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain are suffering crippling recessions and face default. In times of uncertainty, people tend to stick with what they know. Right now, the UK is beginning to look like a haven from the storm, not least because the UK’s credit rating is the best in the EU.
Delaying the independence referendum until autumn 2014 might have seemed like a good idea because it would have given the SNP time to win over wavering Scots. But events in Europe are starting to overshadow the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future.
Which might just explain why Cameron has withdrawn his objection to the delay, saying, in Glasgow parlance: ‘Bring it on if you think you’re hard enough.’
This article first appeared in the June issue of Public Finance