Salmond confident in battle for independent Scotland
OPINION:SUPPORTERS OF major constitutional change usually need to be well ahead in the opinion polls in the early stages, accepting that a referendum race will tighten in the closing weeks.
In Scotland, however, the situation is different. The Scottish National Party wants Scots to back independence in the October 2014 referendum, yet all the polls indicate that a majority currently opposes it.
Scottish first minister Alex Salmond remains confident, however. So, too, is his party’s rank and file, following the SNP’s annual conference in Perth over the weekend.
Ever inventive, Salmond downplayed the significance of the changes that would follow a Yes vote, speaking of home rule as often as he uttered the word “independence”. Sterling would be kept. So, too, would the crown. Secondly, he argued that greater risks lay ahead if Scots voted No, particularly to the universal benefits – such as free prescriptions, free tuition fees, etc – that mark Scotland out now from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Last week, Salmond and British prime minister David Cameron agreed terms for the referendum: a question to be answered with a straight Yes or No; and a vote to be held by the end of 2014, with 16- and 17-year-olds eligible to vote.
In London, Cameron’s supporters credit him with a triumph: Salmond had wanted a third question, offering greater self- government short of independence, but had been rebuffed.
North of the border, the view is different. The wily Salmond, in their eyes, had never wanted a third question: his principal ambition, conceded by London, was the long, drawn-out campaign. Despite his denials, Salmond had wanted a third question, though that is not to say a straight choice on independence does not offer him the opportunity to force doubters on to his side.
Scots want greater self-rule, while promises that they will get such freedom if they vote No to independence – something already being spoken about in London – will be hard to sell.
The Scots have heard this before. In 1979, former British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home offered such carrots, though the Scottish people had to wait for 20 years and the arrival of Tony Blair as prime minister before the devolution process began.
In the SNP’s playbook, the Conservative- Liberal Democrats coalition in London will by 2014 have become even more unpopular than it currently is, on the back of spending cuts.
Welfare changes dictated under current rules by London, not the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, will begin to bite from next spring.
Meanwhile, Scots bridle at the charge that they are living on subvention from London.
Repeatedly over the weekend SNP politicians declared that Scotland provides 9.7 per cent of all of the UK’s tax revenue – including oil receipts – yet receives 9.3 per cent of the spending.
In addition, the increasingly strident calls in England for a referendum on European Union membership, or even withdrawal, are unpopular in Scotland and could impact upon voting intentions.
The agreement on the referendum’s legal foundation between Salmond and Cameron just days before the SNP gathered in Perth was a major boon for the first minister.
On Friday, his delegates – following an extraordinary debate reminiscent of party conferences of decades past – dropped the SNP’s opposition to Nato membership for Scotland.