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PM's Euro gamble has strengthened SNP's hand

EVER since he won the Holyrood majority to deliver it, Alex Salmond has been bombarded with criticism that his referendum on Scottish independence is causing uncertainty to business and damaging the economy.

The charge has been levelled by David Cameron, George Osborne, Alistair Darling, just about everybody, in fact, who has argued for Scotland staying in the UK. We ought to hear less of it now the Prime Minister has announced a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

Conservative claims that companies are afraid to invest in Scotland now sound like nothing more than scaremongering – as the First Minister was quick to point out. Even Labour, who oppose the EU referendum for now, are on shaky ground playing the uncertainty card while they swither about changing their minds in the run-up to the 2015 Westminster election.

Not surprisingly, the Nationalists have been on the attack since the Prime Minister finally made his long-awaited announcement on Tuesday. The pro-UK campaign, said SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson, had been "impaled by its own arguments". Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, addressing business leaders in Dublin yesterday, threw the idea of uncertainty back in the UK Government's face, saying the EU referendum would cost Scottish jobs. "It's not ideal," admitted a Coalition insider yesterday, "and that's an understatement." Labour strategists, when prodded, said much the same.

But does the 2017 EU referendum and the possibility of a British retreat from Brussels mark a "complete change" in the independence debate, as Mr Salmond believes? Can his argument that independence is now the only way to guarantee the benefits of EU membership transform the Nationalists' fortunes after a week which saw support for leaving the UK fall to a post-devolution low of 23%? On the (admittedly limited) evidence so far, I'm not convinced.

The week's events have boiled the Europe aspect of the referendum debate down to this: would you prefer an independent Scotland in the EU on as yet unknown terms and conditions or Scotland in the UK but possibly, though probably not, out of Europe?

For voters just starting to weigh it all up that looks like a foggy cloud of real uncertainty. Unfortunately, rather than managing to shine a light through the mist, both sides remain bogged down in their old spat over the short-term economic consequences of posing the questions. Yes I said we ought hear less of it, but we're not.

So yesterday, despite supporting (or, in the case of Labour, not quite ruling out) a referendum on EU membership, the pro-UK parties continued to claim the SNP's independence poll was causing damaging uncertainty. The SNP insist the charge is entirely baseless. Yet Ms Sturgeon, in her speech to Irish business leaders, argued the EU referendum would cause "considerable uncertainty" and was a "misguided policy that threatens tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland". Needless to say neither side has attempted to explain why one referendum causes uncertainty but another does not.

Far from looking like a game changer in the independence debate – so far – the issue of Europe has reached a messy stalemate which could be summed up in the dispiriting sentence: "Scots Tory whip John Lamont yesterday accused Nicola Sturgeon of 'cheek' for saying about his referendum what he said about hers."

It's early days. A couple of months ago the SNP were in deep trouble on Europe, attempting to defend a rapidly dissolving claim that an independent Scotland would retain EU membership on the same terms as the UK. Their shift to a less certain but more realistic position and now the UK Government's referendum have strengthened their hand. But they still have a long way to go if the Prime Minister's Euro gamble is to prove decisive in the independence referendum.

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