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Is the EU In-Out Debate Fuelling Scottish Independence?

25/04/2014 11:23 BST | Updated 24/06/2014 10:59 BST

According to opinion polls, from April 2nd to April 4th the gap between Scots who intend to vote Yes and those who intend to vote No on Scottish Independence decreased by 12 percentage points (excluding don't knows), and it has stayed close ever since. What had happened in these three days that affected the way Scottish people view independence from the United Kingdom? Had Alex Salmond finally given that memorable speech, or had the No Campaign committed another major blunder?

Arguably, not much related to the Scottish referendum campaign happened in the beginning of April. I think what might have mattered late on April 2nd was the highly publicised BBC debate between UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg on the future relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union. The debate was widely seen as a blow for Clegg and the pro-European case. Now, it is well known that UKIP and the Eurosceptic case are not particularly popular in Scotland. But much more than that: To a Scottish voter, the arguments exchanged, and the coalitions facing off against each other, must have sounded and looked strikingly familiar: In the pro-Union corner, Nick Clegg and his allies in big business, hammering home the economic costs the UK would incur were it to leave the EU. In the opposing corner close to the exit, the apparent working class hero Nigel Farage dismissing the economic costs of withdrawal and pointing to the gain in national sovereignty and democratic accountability that would come with leaving the EU.

It would not surprise me then if Scottish voters were increasingly questioning a logic that tells them that it would be beneficial for Scotland to remain within the UK, but bad for the UK to be part of the EU. In fact, many of the arguments for Scotland's membership of the UK are strikingly similar to the arguments one can come up with to defend the UK's membership in the European Union: exports, jobs, business, international influence, and the list goes on. Given that these arguments must sound familiar to Scottish ears, repeating them over and over again might lead Scottish voters to evaluate the question of Scottish independence through the frames that are prominently discussed in the media. This Priming effect has been well documented by Political Scientists. Moreover, Farage's complaints about the doomsday scenarios laid out by pro-Europeans must remind Scottish voters of what is often portrayed by proponents of Scottish Independence as an overtly negative No campaign.

Even if this particular jump in the polls turns out to be a fluke or unrelated to the BBC debate, I do not think that the tightening in the polls that we are observing at the moment is unrelated to the increasingly heated debate about the UK's relationship with Europe. Maybe Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, and Ed Miliband might want to keep this possibility in mind when embarking on the last weeks of the European Election Campaign. I think that if he keeps on promoting independence as a good more important than a few points of economic growth, Nigel Farage will only keep on playing into Alex Salmond's hands.