Is UK gearing up for fight over Scottish independence?

Britain's decision to replace its Scottish secretary of state with a more 'combative' minister suggests it is shifting tactics ahead of next year's independence referendum.

Lesley Martin/AP
Participants in a march and rally in Edinburgh, calling for a Yes vote in next year's independence referendum, Sept. 21, 2013. Outgoing Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore had held the office since 2010, and helped draft the Edinburgh Agreement that allows next year’s independence vote to take place.

With less than a year to go to a referendum on Scottish independence, the British coalition government has replaced the minister responsible for Scotland in a surprise cabinet reshuffle.

But while the switch is expected to bring a new combativeness to the independence debate here, experts say that the move is a mere sideshow – and may even weaken the British government's efforts to maintain the union.

Outgoing Scottish Secretary Michael Moore had held the office since 2010, and helped draft the Edinburgh Agreement that allows next year’s independence vote to take place. That role will now be filled by Mr. Moore’s fellow Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, said "different experience" was required in the run-up to next year’s vote.

Mr. Clegg said Moore became Scottish secretary at a "critical time" in the country's relationship with the rest of Britain and "managed the challenges of the situation with great skill and effectiveness."

But he added: "I believe we now need to draw on different experience in the final year running up to the referendum itself and I am keen that, just as we have benefited from your formidable skills over the past three years, that we take advantage of other experience within our ranks during this period.”

Mr. Carmichael, the parliamentarian for the islands of Orkney and Shetland at Scotland’s northern tip and former chief whip, has been described as a more "combative" figure than his predecessor. The decision to replace the more even-tempered Moore has been interpreted as a sign that Westminster is preparing for an increasingly aggressive campaign to keep Scotland in the union.

"If we were not in a war for the future of the country, Michael Moore would be great to have as Scottish Secretary, but we are in a war so it needs a real fighter in charge," a senior government source told the Times in London.  

But some Scottish commentators have questioned the logic of replacing the Scottish secretary of state with next September’s referendum already in sight.

"Michael Moore used a diplomatic form of political language and debate, Alastair Carmichael will be a bit more abrasive," says prominent Scottish writer and commentator Gerry Hassan.

"But it is absolutely marginal to the bigger debate in Scotland. Just like the Lib Dems are marginal in the bigger debate. The only thing the Lib Dems do is provide a human shield that stops [the independence campaign] becoming the [Scottish National Party] in Holyrood versus the Tories in Westminster."

In a blog for the New Statesman magazine, Scottish political journalist James Maxwell went farther, calling Moore's ouster "a classic Westminster misreading of the Scottish situation."

"London is obsessed with the idea that a 'big hitter' is needed to 'take on' [Scottish First Minister and independence leader Alex] Salmond," wrote Mr. Maxwell. "Yet quite apart from the fact that Carmichael is hardly a 'big hitter', the first minister relishes (and has a habit of winning) confrontations that allow him to pit plucky, populist Holyrood against the big, clunking fist of Whitehall."

"Moore was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with. For no good reason at all, the no campaign has just dumped one of its strongest cards," Maxwell concluded.

Moore was the only cabinet minister to lose his job in Monday's coalition reshuffle, which has largely focused on middle-ranking and junior ministerial positions. In May, Moore fared poorly in a live television debate with Scottish National Party deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon.

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