EDINBURGH (Reuters) - With less than a month to go until Scotland votes on independence, nationalists are seeking to broaden the debate away from a difficult focus on what currency would be used after breaking from the United Kingdom.
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 Aug 25.
The question of whether Scotland could keep the pound if it voted on Sept. 18 to leave the United Kingdom has hampered independence campaigners. The British government has said no and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has warned of difficulties in monetary union.
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 camp.
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 Council.
The debate over how much oil is left in the North Sea dominated the last session of Scottish parliamentary question time for Salmond before a break for the referendum.
He said there was plenty of the resource left after industry expert Sir Ian Wood said the SNP was overstating the revenues from oil that are remaining.
Salmond said that industry figures showed “the extraordinary potential that remains in the waters around Scotland, if indeed the policies are pursued and the stewardship is correct to make sure that these resources work for the Scottish people.”
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 temporary.
“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 favour 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