LONDON (AFP) – Britain’s three main political parties united on Tuesday to promise greater powers for Scotland if it rejects independence in next week’s referendum, in a last-ditch attempt to head off growing separatist support.
Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has taken the lead in the campaign to keep the United Kingdom together after an opinion poll at the weekend put the pro-independence “Yes” camp ahead for the first time.
Although he lost the 2010 election to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Brown has the premier’s backing in making a final push to stop the break-up of the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland on September 18.
He set out a timetable on Monday to transfer new powers over income tax and welfare spending to the devolved government in Edinburgh, promising that new draft legislation could be ready as soon as January.
At a press conference in Edinburgh on Tuesday, the leaders of the Scottish Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties united to endorse the plan.
“It’s possible to vote ‘No’ on September 18 as a patriotic choice, but also to say that you’re voting for change and more powers for the Scottish parliament,” said Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.
But First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), said the “panicky” unionists were merely re-packaging proposals published earlier this year.
“I think today what we’ve seen is the disintegration of the ‘No’ campaign,” he told reporters at a rally in Edinburgh.
“A back-of-an-envelope non-plan to cobble something together at the last minute because they’re losing this election.”
He added: “We are extremely confident of victory but we’re not over-confident and we are going to be working flat out.”
The new push by the unionists follows a YouGov poll on Sunday that put the “Yes” camp ahead by two points, a slim margin but a major development given that the same polling company put them 22 points behind one month earlier.
Another poll on Tuesday by TNS Scotland confirmed the two sides were neck and neck, putting the “Yes” camp on 38 per cent and the “No” side on 39 per cent. The same company gave the unionists a 13-point lead in August.
“This poll reveals a remarkable shift in voting intentions. It’s too close to call,” said TNS Scotland head Tom Costley.
The pound tumbled to a 10-month low against the dollar on Monday and stayed there in early Tuesday trading, amid continued uncertainty about the effect that independence would have on the British economy.
The SNP say Scotland would keep the pound, but the unionist parties in London say this will not be possible.
The pound also fell to a three-month low against the euro, although it recovered slightly on Tuesday.
The polls show Labour voters in particular are shifting towards independence, prompting the deployment of Brown and other senior politicians from the party.
By contrast, Cameron is taking a back seat because of fears that his intervention might make things worse.