Scottish bid to split brings rare unity among UK politicians

Three leaders from different parties have all aligned against the Scottish National Party's push for an independent Scotland, forcing it to make a stronger case ahead of the September vote.

David Moir/Reuters/File
A teacher and schoolgirl ran in front of a sign indicating the date of Scotland's independence referendum outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland last year.

In Britain’s confrontational style of democracy, it’s rare for all three major political parties to agree on anything.

Apart from congratulating a royal baby, marking a death, or supporting the armed forces, the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties will usually have differences on policy and delivery.

They are united, however, on one major issue that threatens the very future of the country – Scottish independence.

Last week three senior figures from each party – Chancellor George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, and Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander – effectively told the pro-independence Scottish National Party that it couldn’t use the pound if it broke away.

The choreographed pronouncement was designed to have maximum impact and create uncertainty. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond hit back, arguing that a post-independent country could still share the pound, and that a currency split would cost English jobs. But doubts over the currency, as well as possible future Scottish membership in the EU, have thrown Scotland's future back onto center stage and put pressure on the pro-independence camp seven months ahead of the vote.

Dr. Alistair Clark, a senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University, says the reasons for the seamless opposition among three infrequent allies are simple: “[I]ndependence would reduce the United Kingdom both domestically and internationally. They all have different takes on what might happen in Scotland if they vote no, but for the moment that’s not being discussed.”

Rob Johns, a senior political lecturer at Essex University points out that the parties also have various reasons for being anti-independence.

“The Conservative Party has always been pro-union – they’re still technically called the Conservative and Unionist Party. While they may not be pro-union in [European Union] terms, they do believe in Britain and Britain being run from Westminster. They were opposed to devolution.

“The Lib Dems have, for a long time, been a federalist party and they believed in devolution for Scotland, but not independence," he continues. "For the Labour Party, it’s more political.... They would have the most to lose if Scotland voted for independence, because they might struggle to form a majority in Westminster without Scottish Labour MPs. But their opposition to independence is more entrenched in Scotland, where they are the main opposition to the SNP.”

Most polls currently point to a "no" vote on independence, although many voters say they are still undecided.  And some say that while the three senior party figures' intent may have been to create a "game-changer" issue with the pound, it could backfire.

“The SNP will be hoping people will react to the ‘bullying and intimidation’ by the Westminster parties last week," says Mark Diffley, research director at polling firm Ipsos MORI."

Dr. Clark, a Scot, says all the three main parties are treading a fine line – especially among Scots who don't appreciate a lecture from Westminster.

“There’s something in the Scottish character that doesn’t like being told what to do, especially [by] an ‘English’ government in London," he says. "But there’s also something in the Scottish character which is conservative with a small ‘c’ and resistant to change."

And, he adds, "the economy is a big area of doubt.”

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