LONDON (Reuters) - The British government’s bid to seize the initiative in a planned referendum on Scottish independence has backfired and boosted the separatist cause, a member of Scotland’s ruling party said on Wednesday.
Angus Robertson, independence campaign manager for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which forms the Scottish devolved government, said applications to join the party had surged after what he called London’s “clumsy” attempt to intervene.
A row between the British government in London and the SNP has escalated sharply in recent days, after British Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday outlined a plan to bring forward the referendum, and restrict the questions asked.
“The reaction in Scotland saw the SNP’s membership application website crash, because that many people were reacting,” Robertson, who is also a lawmaker in the British parliament in London, told Reuters.
The SNP wants to hold the referendum in autumn 2014, and as well as ask whether Scotland should be in or out of the United Kingdom, give a third option of a Scotland with greater devolved powers but still within the UK, the so-called “devo max” plan.
The party has long campaigned to end Scotland’s 300-year union with England.
Robertson painted a picture of London-based politicians, many from the ruling Conservative Party -- which has long been unpopular in Scotland and has only one seat there -- trying to impose its agenda against the will of the Scottish people.
He reminded parliament on Wednesday that, after China lent Scotland two giant pandas in December, there were now more of those endangered creatures in the country than Conservative MPs.
“The ‘No’ campaign to independence appears to be led from London, by London politicians, many of whom are not elected in Scotland. That’s very dangerous for them, but I think reflects the anarchy within their own campaign,” Robertson said.
DROP “DEVO MAX”?
Cameron and the opposition Labour party both say the SNP’s proposed referendum date is too distant and the uncertainty is negatively affecting businesses. They argue a united Britain is stronger than the separate states envisaged through secession.
“It’s not a referendum they want; it’s a never-endum. Let’s have the debate and let’s keep our country together,” Cameron told parliament on Wednesday.
Cameron’s spokesman said government ministers, possibly including the prime minister, will visit Scotland in the coming weeks to take part in a consultation on the referendum plans.
The government in London says only it has the right to grant the Scottish government the powers to hold a referendum, and then only on London’s terms. The SNP rejects that, and the impasse may have to be resolved in court.
As well as an earlier vote, London wants to restrict the referendum to “single, straightforward question”, removing “devo max” as an option.
Indicating room for compromise, Robertson said the SNP was relaxed about the “devo max” plan.
“We’re confident enough that not only will devo max win, but that independence will win. So we’re relaxed about having devo max on the ballot paper.”
Making life difficult for those opposed to Scottish independence is the lack, so far, of a spokesperson to lead the pro-union campaign and a plan that coordinates the efforts of Britain’s three main parties, who all oppose Scottish secession.
However, a key argument against independence already emerging is the likelihood that an independent Scotland would have to apply for membership of the European Union, and then commit to adopt the beleaguered euro currency.
“This is total rubbish,” Robertson said, although some European constitutional experts contradict his view.
“For that to be the case, you would have to be somebody seeking to join the European Union as a new member. Scotland is currently within the EU ... So the issue of the euro ... is a moot point,” he added.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Edited by Richard Meares