The British government is scrambling to respond to a lurch in the opinion polls towards a vote for Scottish independence this month by promising a range of new powers for Scotland if it chooses to stay within the United Kingdom.
British finance minister George Osborne said on Sunday that plans would be set out in the coming days to give Scotland more autonomy on tax, spending and welfare if Scots vote against independence in a historic referendum on Sept. 18.
Osborne’s comments came after a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed supporters of independence had taken their first opinion poll lead since the referendum campaign began.
With less than two weeks to go before the vote, the poll put the “Yes” to independence campaign on 51 percent and the “No” camp on 49 percent, overturning a 22-point lead for the unionist position in just a month.
“You will see in the next few days a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland … Then Scotland will have the best of both worlds. They will both avoid the risks of separation but have more control over their own destiny, which is where I think many Scots want to be,” Osborne told the BBC.
“More tax-raising powers, much greater fiscal autonomy … more control over public expenditure, more control over welfare rates and a host of other changes,” he said, adding that the measures were being agreed by all three major parties in the British parliament.
Osborne said the changes would be put into effect the moment there was a ‘no’ vote in the referendum.
Osborne’s comments echo those of former British Prime Minister and opposition Labour party lawmaker Gordon Brown, who said on Friday he would spearhead a push for Scotland to gain more powers if it voted against independence.
Scotland already enjoys a large measure of devolution. It has had its own parliament since 1999 with the power to legislate in policy areas such as education, health and the environment. Polls have previously shown many Scots would favour a power transfer over outright independence.
Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, welcomed the YouGov poll as a “very significant moment” in the campaign and rejected talk of more devolved powers for Scotland.
“I don’t think people are going to take this seriously. If the other parties had been serious about more powers, then something concrete would have been put forward before now,” she told Sky news, adding that the other parties had been against the idea of including the choice of more powers as an alternative to independence on the referendum ballot paper.
After months of surveys showing nationalists heading for defeat, recent polls have seen the gap narrow to the extent that they raise the real prospect that secessionists could achieve their goal of breaking the 307-year-old union with England.
“A two-point gap is too small for us to call the outcome. But the fact that the contest is too close to call is itself remarkable, as Better Together seemed to have victory in the bag,” YouGov President Peter Kellner wrote on his blog.
“In the past four weeks support for the union has drained away at an astonishing rate. The Yes campaign has not just invaded No territory; it has launched a blitzkrieg.”
A separate poll on Sunday by Panelbase, commissioned by the pro-independence campaign, showed support for a breakaway rising but still short of a majority at 48 percent. When undecideds were included, that fell to 44 percent.
The late showing by the independence camp has hit sterling on the foreign exchange markets and electrified Britain’s political classes as they returned from the summer break.
A vote to break away would be followed by negotiations with London on what to do about the currency, national debt, North Sea oil and the future of Britain’s nuclear submarine base in Scotland ahead of independence pencilled in for March 24, 2016.
The pro-independence side has said it believes the rest of Britain would agree to a currency union in the event of a Scottish breakaway, allowing the new state to use the pound. This has been rejected by Britain’s three main political parties, and Osborne remained adamant on Sunday.
“No ifs, no buts, we will not share the pound if Scotland separates from the rest of the UK,” he said.