Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond took his campaign for independence across the border, arguing that Scotland can become an economic counterweight to London and benefit less affluent parts of England.
In a speech in Carlisle, known as the “Border City” due to its location about 10 miles south of Scotland, Salmond sought to reassure locals there would be no disruption to work or family life should voters in Scotland decide to leave the rest of the U.K. in a referendum on independence on Sept. 18.
“The real danger for both Scotland and the regions of the U.K. lies with the current system,” Salmond said in Carlisle Cathedral yesterday evening. “We’re part of a U.K. which has become profoundly imbalanced. It often seems as though power, wealth and talent flow downhill to the southeast. Independence for Scotland would cause a rebalancing of Britain.”
The venture south builds on a succession of polls this month that showed a whittling down of public support for the U.K. government-backed campaign to keep the 307-year-old union intact. One survey this week suggested the “No” camp was just three percentage points ahead of those who say they will vote for independence, the narrowest margin since campaigning began.
While only residents of Scotland get a vote, a split would reverberate most dramatically in border regions where Scots and English share amenities and employers. Prime Minister David Cameron’s U.K. government has ruled out sharing the pound with an independent Scotland, potentially forcing the adoption of a new currency if voters opt to go it alone.
“Salmond would prefer it if there’s not too much opposition in England,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. “The Scottish government’s view is continuing collaboration with the rest of the U.K. It’s partly trying to persuade people the world’s not going to fall apart with Scottish independence.”
Salmond, 59, spoke about how the border north of Carlisle would remain seamless and the municipalities on either side would work together in areas such as fishing and environmental protection. People would still watch the same television programs and share the monarchy, he said.
“Scottish independence would not change many aspects of the day to day life of other countries within the U.K.,” Salmond said, according to a transcript of his speech.
He cited unequal spending on the transportation network such as high-speed rail links in northern England compared with London as how the U.K. political system had “manifestly failed” people in the region.
Carlisle, a city of about 75,000 people that’s three times as far from London as it is from Edinburgh or Glasgow, is a regional hub for towns and villages in both England and Scotland including Lockerbie, scene of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.
It’s no stranger to cross-border conflict, albeit centuries ago. An ancient settlement, the present-day city lies close to the west end of Hadrian’s Wall, built during Roman times to protect the empire from the daubed-blue barbarians of Caledonia described by Tacitus. The city’s castle is the most besieged place in the British Isles, according to the English Heritage organization.
England’s King Edward I, known as the “Hammer of the Scots” for his victorious battles north of the border, died on the marshes outside Carlisle in 1307 while on his way back to campaign in Scotland, having failed to conquer and subjugate the Scots as he did the Welsh. Scotland remained an independent country until its parliament voted in 1707 to enter into a union with England, forming what became the United Kingdom.
More than three centuries on, Salmond and his Scottish National Party say the union has outlived its purpose and the country of 5.3 million would be better off having control of its own finances, borders and immigration policy. The 150 billion-pound ($250 billion) economy would be underpinned by North Sea oil and vast untapped clean-energy resources.
The independence debate has heated up since the three main U.K. political parties -- Cameron’s Conservatives, his Liberal Democrat coalition partner and the opposition Labour Party -- united to say on Feb. 13 that Scotland would lose the pound should it opt to leave the U.K. Salmond called it a bluff and said Scotland would walk away from its share of debt should it be denied a currency union.
The arguments have mainly focused on the potential economic effects of independence, from cross-border trade to the funding of retirement plans and welfare payments.
A report by the U.K. government published today said setting up a new welfare system would cost as much as 400 million pounds and take years to develop. Additional social security costs over the next two decades would amount to about 1.6 billion pounds annually, it said.
That echoed a speech made in Glasgow this week by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot who represents a U.K. electoral district north of Edinburgh. Brown, a former Labour leader, said it was “clear that pensioners are better protected when the risks are spread across the U.K.”
Also this week, a group of Scottish universities resigned their membership of the Confederation of British Industry business lobby after it formally sided with the campaign against independence. They said it compromised political neutrality on the issue, the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper reported.
Polls suggest the arguments against independence are failing to resonate with voters.
A survey by ICM Research published in the Scotland on Sunday newspaper on April 20 showed support for the current constitutional arrangement dropped to 42 percent from 46 percent, while the proportion of voters saying they’ll opt for independence was unchanged at 39 percent. The poll was conducted on April 14-16, and when excluding undecided respondents the margin was 52 percent to 48 percent.
A poll by TNS published on April 16 found the gap narrowed to 12 points from 14 points a month earlier and 19 points in September when the company started monthly polling. The results showed 41 percent of voters in Scotland plan to reject independence, down one point, with 29 percent in favor, up by the same margin. Thirty percent of voters said they were undecided, unchanged from a month before.
“The ‘Yes’ side made progress, but you need much more evidence,” said Curtice. “The race is tighter, but whether the ‘Yes’ side has momentum is much less clear.”
Salmond has made speeches before in the north of England, which has closer political and cultural ties to Scotland than London and the southeast because of a shared history of mining, heavy industry and the consequent dominance of the Labour Party. In Liverpool in February 2012, he told an audience that independence would provide a benchmark for other U.K. regions.
Scotland already has a parliament, reconvened in 1999 under a policy known as devolution introduced by the then-Labour government that also brought about a Welsh assembly. The SNP has formed the Scottish government since 2007.
The address to businesses in Carlisle yesterday marked St. George’s Day, the celebration of the patron saint of England. Cameron used the occasion to repeat his call for unity in Britain, saying that “no matter how great we are alone, we will always be greater together.”
The Herald newspaper billed the speeches as the “Battle of St. George’s Day” on its front page.
“It has probably never been marked by so much politics before,” Curtice said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at firstname.lastname@example.org