Health care and other social issues such as justice and equality
are likely to get a bigger airing if pro-independence First Minister
Alex Salmond has his way in a second televised debate on August 25.
The question of whether Scotland could keep the pound if it voted on
September 18 to leave the United Kingdom has hampered independence
campaigners. The British government and Bank of England have both
firmly said no.
As a result, uncertainty over the currency dogged the normally fiery
Salmond in the first TV debate two weeks ago when he was
unexpectedly outshone by the more reserved head of the campaign to
keep Scotland in the UK, former finance minister Alistair Darling.
But disappointment over Salmond's performance following the first
debate was pushed aside last weekend when two polls showed the gap
in support narrowing with a two-point swing to the independence
An ICM poll had support for independence at 38 percent versus 47
percent opposition, while a Panelbase survey put backing for
independence at 42 percent compared to 46 percent.
The pro-independence vote continues to lag in all major polls, but
Salmond has been trying to leverage the latest swing in support by
blitzing the media on topics that might sway undecided voters.
He warned, for example, that the publicly funded free health service
might be at risk if Scotland stays in the union, but that it could
be enshrined in the constitution of an independent Scotland.
The current devolved Scottish parliament, led by Salmond's Scottish
National Party (SNP), controls health policy. But Salmond says the
dependence of Scotland's budget on an allowance from politicians in
London makes it vulnerable.
"If we stay in our current circumstances ... we will find it
progressively more difficult to keep a health service free at the
point of need," Salmond told a public meeting this week at Arbroath
on the east coast where Scotland signed an historic declaration of
independence in 1320.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who opposes independence,
described the argument as "desperate", arguing that UK spending on
health care had been protected during the term of his coalition
government, which came to power in 2010.
Britain's three major political parties have united against a
breakaway Scotland, issuing pleas for unity and warning about the
economic costs of independence to the four million Scottish
residents over the age of 16 who can vote on Sept. 18.
Oil-rich Scotland accounts for about one-tenth of the UK's gross
domestic product, and opponents of independence fear a split would
weaken all sides and could damage British diplomatic clout, even
raising questions over the UK's permanent seat on the U.N. Security
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Salmond, a veteran political campaigner who has driven the SNP to be
Scotland's dominant party, is banking on voter fatigue with the
political stalemate over currency to bring new life to the debate in
the final weeks before the vote.
The position on the currency has remained unchanged for months, with
UK parties ruling out a deal but Salmond insisting they would
negotiate if Scotland voted for independence. He has also said no
one could stop Scotland using the pound informally.
But while Salmond may be trying to broaden the discussion, the
Better Together campaign led by Darling has vowed to continuing
pressing him on the issue of the currency.
Darling, a Scot who served as a finance minister in the last British
Labour government, has been on the front foot with the currency
debate and is unlikely to step back.
Other pro-unionists have chimed in.
"We urgently need clarity from the first minister about his Plan B
for currency," Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said in a
statement on Wednesday, highlighting an admission from the "Yes" to
independence campaign that any informal currency union would be
"Scots need to know what money our wages, pensions and benefits
would be paid in," she said.
With the second debate seen as crucial in the leadup to the vote,
commentators said the pressure was mounting on Salmond to emerge
victorious and spark further movement in the polls which currently
favor the pro-UK camp.
"Maybe Darling has more experience in speaking on a national basis,
but if Alex Salmond comes from a more passionate point of view, and
changes his tactics on how to project this, that might encourage
voters to continue to switch to Yes," said Tanya Abraham, senior
research executive at pollster YouGov.
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)
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