Scotland 'yes' camp has too much ground to make up: analysts

Pro-independence supporters at a rally in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept 21, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Pro-independence supporters at a rally in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept 21, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Supporters of Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom are making up some ground but with six months to go until the independence referendum, it is not enough, analysts say.

Armed with the slogan "Better Together", the three main London-based parties - the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, and the opposition Labour party - have formed an improbable but resolute alliance to push the "no" vote.

British Prime Minister David Cameron engaged in a game of call my bluff by accepting to hold a referendum on September 18, convinced of being able to dash the separatist hopes of Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.

In early March, 39.3 per cent of voters were in the "yes" camp, 47.6 per cent backed the "no" vote and 13.1 per cent were undecided, according to the Survation polling group who surveyed 1,002 people.

"Winning from here for Alex Salmond would be an astonishing achievement," said Michael Marra from the University of Dundee, who helped run the poll.

John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said: "Something has happened - not necessarily a great deal. The 'yes' side is quite a long way behind."

For three decades, support for independence has been stuck at around a third of the Scottish electorate, but the gap has closed slightly since the turn of the year, Curtice noted.

Taking an average of polls since mid-2013, the "yes" vote has clawed back two to three percentage points.

"The Survation poll is interesting because it gives you a trend towards a 'yes', but they are still losing," said Peter Lynch, Curtice's colleague at Strathclyde.

Salmond places great store on the fact that the gap is narrowing - Scots, he insist, will reject "Project Fear" in favour of the "hope, aspiration and progress offered by a 'yes' vote."

The 59-year-old leader of the Scottish National Party, who won an absolute majority in the devolved Scottish Parliament in 2011, has published a 670-page manifesto foreseeing an independent country of 5.3 million inhabitants, rivalling Switzerland, Finland or Norway in size.

Salmond says its economy would be based on North Sea oil and gas and premium Scotch Whisky and it would be a member of the European Union and NATO.

The nuclear submarines currently based in Scotland would go and it would keep the pound as the currency and Queen Elizabeth II as monarch.

The sometimes lacklustre "no" campaign took flight in February, when Britain's finance minister George Osborne warned that Scotland would have to choose between the pound and independence.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso inflicted another blow when he said it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the EU.

The heads of finance and energy giants including Royal Dutch Shell and BP have expressed their clear preference for the status quo, warning that they might have to reduce their activities in an independent Scotland, citing above all potential difficulties with tax.

Salmond dismissed "the most negative campaign in modern political history" and retorted that he had a "plan B, C, D, E and F" to keep the pound.

Salmond might have a point - "the detached super-rich elite telling you how to vote is not a great strategy" for the "no" campaign, said Peter Lynch.

Lynch believes voters have more down-to-earth motivations, based on their jobs, education and public services.

"People want to know, will they be better off or will they be worse off?" Lynch said.

Salmond has picked up votes over the years by promising a "fairer" country based on the Scandinavian model, in contrast to the "aristocrats" running the government in London.

Cameron hit back last week, playing his trump card.

"A vote for 'no' is not a vote for 'no change'," he said, promising greater devolution of powers to Scotland, especially in tax policy.

Such a move would not be "a consolation prize" for Salmond if Scotland rejects independence, "but because it is the right thing to do".

Labour and the Lib Dems would take similar measures if they come to power in the 2015 general election.

"The more they commit themselves before September 18, the more it will be difficult for them to row back," Curtice said.

Scotland's government can currently only set policy in the areas of health, education, justice and planning.

A host of other items would have to divided up in the event of a 'divorce', ranging from oil revenues to the two pandas lent to Edinburgh Zoo by China.

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