Salmond: Set England Free: With His Party Ahead in the Polls, the Leader of the SNP Says Independence Would Serve UK Interests Too

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The tower at the Glasgow Science Centre is Scotland's tallest structure: millennial modernism on a quayside where Clyde-built ships once traded from the second city of the British empire. It was meant to spin on its base, but has been plagued by design problems. As the Scottish Nationalists gathered for their conference next door, their hopes of being photographed symbolically atop the structure were thwarted. It had been closed due to bitter, blustery squalls.

So it goes with devolution. The 21st-century modernisation of the British constitution is not working as devised. It was hobbled by overambitious, over-budget architecture at its home in Holyrood. And Labour has to throw all the bluster and squalls that it can muster if it is to see off the Nationalist threat. Although the 129 MSPs elected four years ago represent eight parties, with a voting system designed to deny any of them a majority, this is a Labour-SNP tussle. The stakes could be highest for Gordon Brown, for whom the timing is awkward. On 3 May, the process of takeover from Tony Blair must surely begin, yet an SNP breakthrough would give the Chancellor a constitutional crisis in his backyard, leaving doubts that he could continue to sit in the Commons if his Fife constituency becomes part of a foreign country.

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Alex Salmond has stressed in recent weeks that he wants to work with Brown. The SNP leader wants to reassure people that his party, if it took power, would be sensible and credible, working with Downing Street on national strategies for tackling poverty and renewable energy. But in his conference speech, Salmond also served notice of confrontation. He would, he said, fight against more nuclear-armed submarines on the Clyde; he wants a referendum on independence before the 2011 election; and in his first 100 days, he would open negotiations on taking control of North Sea oil and gas. The discussion could be brief between the Nationalists' unstoppable force and the Chancellor's immovable object.

But haven't we heard this before from the great chieftain o' the Pictish people? Yes, we have. Salmond has puffed himself up at four elections, and been deflated. Aged 52, the oil economist has been around for a long while. But this time, polls show that the threat to Labour looks serious. Salmond has set out to counter the negatives that lost previous elections. He has embraced corporate tax cuts, winning support and money from big names in the business world. As Blair arrived in Edinburgh on a brief campaigning trip, the SNP unveiled a gold-plated endorsement from the man who built the Royal Bank of Scotland into the world's fifth-biggest bank. The next day, the party received a [pounds sterling]500,000 donation from Brian Souter, the boss at Stagecoach buses who helped fund the campaign against the repeal of Section 28.

Salmond, defining himself as a social democrat, highlights the "arc of prosperity" around Scotland: Ireland's low tax and Celtic tiger growth, Norway's vast trust fund built on oil wealth, and Iceland's control over fisheries (for constituency reasons, Salmond takes haddock very seriously). Whether in or out of Europe, small neighbours are proving nimble and adept in the globalising economy. The best response so far from Labour is to complain about the price of beer in Oslo and the cost of a consultation with a Galway GP.

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Labour has struggled to find a response that works. Both Blair and Brown told Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister, to talk up the cost and risk of breaking up Britain. It may yet work. It has before. But, for now, it looks tired and occasionally silly. Labour has implied that independent Scots would be cut off from visiting or phoning their relatives in England, business and academic networks would be ripped up, border guards would be stationed at Berwick, and an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to attack by al-Qaeda. …