Since moving to the UK back in 2012, I’ve been fascinated by the evolving debate around Scottish independence. Being Irish, the question is naturally of considerable interest. Ireland’s terse relationship with the UK and messy transition to independence define much of our history as well as helping to explain many puzzling patterns in contemporary Irish politics.
Ireland is also a country where we are well used to holding referendums. This is because of a stipulation in the Irish constitution that any constitutional change proposed by the legislature must be ratified by referendum as well as an influential Supreme Court ruling that extend this procedure to Ireland’s ratification of European Union treaties.
Thus, Irish people vote on issues as constitutionally complex as ratifying the Lisbon Treaty or abolishing the upper house of our legislature, but also on highly personal matters including the legalisation of divorce and legislation on abortion.
One lesson that I have learned from all the referendum campaigns that I observed growing up in Ireland is the importance of uncertainty. Both proponents and opponents of a given proposal build much of their argumentation on speculation, focusing on possible (but not provable) consequences. This approach tends to favour those advocating the status quo, particularly where a vote has multiple dimensions and where consequences are difficult to forecast. ‘If you don’t know, vote no’ is a common refrain in Irish referendum campaigns.
It appears that this lesson has not been lost on opponents of Scottish independence. Last week saw an unusual show of unity from the three major Westminster parties, all of which oppose a ‘Yes’ vote. During a speech in Edinburgh on Thursday, UK Chancellor George Osborne argued that ‘if Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the pound’. Both Labour’s Ed Balls and the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, came out in support of this stance.
Mr. Osborne took the unprecedented step of publishing advice that he had received on the issue from the Treasury’s most senior civil servant, Sir Nicholas Mac Pherson. Mac Pherson’s letter presents a lucid analysis of the difficulties that would be involved in constructing a Scottish-UK currency union, especially highlighting the issue that Scottish and UK fiscal policy appear likely to diverge in the medium term should Scotland become independent. Mac Pherson concludes that a Scottish-UK currency union would be both financially unstable and politically volatile and urges the Chancellor to rule it out.
Following these events, you might be tempted to conclude that Scotland’s voters now have a clearer picture of the consequences of voting for independence.
However, this is not the case. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, was quick to dismiss Mr. Osborne’s stance as ‘bluff, bluster and bullying’. Mr. Salmond and the wider ‘Yes’ campaign have sought to portray the UK government’s intervention on the future of the pound as an attempt to manipulate Scottish voters into rejecting independence.
The Scottish government’s white paper on independence, published last November, asserted that an independent Scotland would be able to keep the pound. The white paper claimed that such an arrangement would be in the economic interests of both Scotland and the UK. The ‘Yes’ campaign argue that this continues to be the case, and that the Westminster parties will reverse their position in the aftermath of the referendum.
So, what are voters to make of all of this? Bookmakers’ odds are a source that I like to refer to in such situations. William Hill is offering a market on Scotland’s currency post independence – and Sterling is currently running as a strong favourite. At the time of writing, a £10 bet on ‘Sterling’ will only pay £15.30, while a bet on ‘Own Currency’ pays £45.
These figures indicate that both bookies and their punters are inclined to follow Mr. Salmond’s line of reasoning in interpreting Mr. Osbourne’s speech. However, at the very least, the speech has raised considerable doubt about this issue in the minds of voters. Osborne was clear in framing this statement in terms of certainty at the top of the speech, stating that ‘The stakes couldn’t be higher or the choice clearer. The certainty and security of being part of the UK or the uncertainty and risk of going it alone’.
This morning’s proclamation from Jose Manuel Barroso that an independent Scotland would find it ‘difficult, if not impossible’ to join the EU will see a similar dynamic unfold – where the ‘Yes’ campaign will claim that this is merely a politicised campaign stance, but, once again, doubts will be sown in the minds of Scotland’s voters.
Opinion polling has consistently shown larger numbers of ‘no’ than ‘yes’ voters in the Scottish electorate. However, John Curtice’s analysis at the excellent whatscotlndthinks.org had discerned a slight swing towards ‘Yes’ in the months following the publication of the government white paper. Last week’s intervention by the Westminster parties as well as the EU Commissioner appear to me to be well-designed to halt this momentum, and will prove difficult for the ‘Yes’ campaign to overcome.