(Reuters) – Britain’s coalition government replaced the minister responsible for Scottish affairs on Monday less than a year before Scotland votes on whether to become independent, signalling a change in campaign tactics.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, their junior coalition partner the Lib Dems and the main opposition Labour Party are all campaigning to maintain the status quo, which grants Scotland broad autonomy within Britain.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which runs a devolved government in Edinburgh, is seeking full independence, arguing that the country of five million people can achieve greater prosperity by going it alone.
Opinion polls show a majority of Scots would reject independence in a referendum scheduled for September 18, 2014, but as the vote approaches, Cameron’s government wants to sharpen its campaign strategy.
Cameron’s office, which plans to conduct a wider reshuffle of junior government ministers later on Monday, said it had appointed Alistair Carmichael, 48, as the new Secretary of State for Scotland, replacing Michael Moore, also 48.
Both men are from the Lib Dem, which has 11 lawmakers representing Scottish constituencies in the Westminster parliament in London, compared to just one from Cameron’s Conservatives.
“We now need to draw on different experience in the final year running up to the referendum itself,” Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, told Moore in a letter seen by Reuters.
A government source said Moore’s robust but relatively low-key defence of Britain remaining together had been appropriate for the past three years, but that a more combative style of campaigning was now needed.
The Scotland Office leaves much of the day-to-day running of Scottish affairs to the SNP-run government in Edinburgh, but represents Scottish interests in areas such as foreign affairs and defence, which have not been devolved. It also campaigns for Scotland to remain part of Britain.
If Scots defy pollsters and vote for independence next year, it would cause various problems for the rest of Britain. The country’s submarine-launched nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland and the SNP has said it wants it moved elsewhere.
Apart from sparking disputes about who owns what, some political analysts have suggested a breakup could also weaken British diplomatic clout and raise questions over its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Peter Griffiths; Editing by Gareth Jones)