The last couple of weeks have seen a few controversies crop up as the Scottish independence referendum campaign finally started to kick off in the press. After almost two years of occasional back-and-forth sniping over the pros and cons of independence, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso sent shots across the bow of the Yes campaign on two of the most important issues for an independent Scotland: currency union with the UK and membership in the European Union. Osborne ruled out allowing an independent Scotland to use the pound in an official capacity, and Barroso indicated that several EU members concerned about their own regional independence movements would vote against Scottish membership.
These were both fairly predictable announcements, yet they seem to have caught Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Yes campaign, entirely flat-footed. There was no way that the Unionist parties in Westminster would provide any incentives or stability to plans for Scottish independence. The Yes campaign is in the worst possible bargaining position now, as any suggestion of an accommodation on the part of the UK government is likely to help supporters of independence.
In the increasingly unlikely event of a yes vote, Salmond’s Scottish National Party will hold a lot more cards to be able to force the Westminster coalition’s hand on border controls, EU membership, currency union, and other issues. For the duration of the campaign, though, the Yes campaign should have expected nothing less than damaging commentary and press releases from government ministers and planned how to react to these veiled attacks well in advance.
That Barroso would be the bearer of bad news from the EU may have been somewhat unexpected, but it isn’t at all surprising that a senior EU official would give a discouraging response on the topic of Scottish membership. The Spanish government will be particularly concerned about membership for an independent Scotland given its own sectional problems, especially in Catalonia, and other countries could have similar concerns. Again, a bit of strategic planning for potentially damaging comments or announcements could have gone a long way to mitigating the effects of bad news from Brussels.
The Yes campaign has been polling solidly between 32% and 38% for most of the last three years, with some increasing opposition and a still-sizable number of swing voters (around 15%). To win, the SNP will have to win just about all of those swing voters and peel away some support from the No camp. (An aside about turnout: I haven’t seen any good examinations of which side would benefit from higher or lower turnout, but my hunch at this point is that lower turnout would favor the Yes campaign because the SNP has done rather well at low-turnout Scottish Parliamentary elections, and they should have a more consistent local campaign structure to get Yes voters to the polls.)
Bad news weeks like this will continue to be a problem for the Yes campaign right up until the September referendum, and they should expect a serious onslaught. David Cameron has a lot to lose personally (although the Conservatives have quite a lot to gain) from a yes vote, and he will do whatever he can to discourage Scottish voters from taking the independence path. Whatever the economic logic of a currency union (not ridiculous, but certainly not ideal from the perspective of Westminster) or EU membership (far more likely and more reasonable), the Yes campaign should have been prepared for these setbacks, and will need to have much better plans to address the criticism and damaging announcements to come through the spring and summer.