Exclusive: Alex Salmond on his youth jobs right, the bedroom tax and why he will win

In a rare interview, Salmond declares "the real game hasn’t even started" and reveals that a written Scottish constitution would guarantee every young person the right to a job or training.

Ever since David Cameron called his bluff on Scottish independence last year, Alex Salmond has been on the back foot. But in a rare interview in tomorrow's New Statesman, the Scottish First Minister comes out fighting. He tells NS editor Jason Cowley: 

This is the phony war. This is not the campaign. I went into an [Scottish] election in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground.

After being forced on the defensive over issues such as EU membership and the currency, he seeks to flesh out the SNP's "positive programme", revealing that the written constitution of an independent Scotland would guarantee every young person the right to a job or training. 

"Every 16 and 19 year old", he says, would be offered "a training place or an opportunity of a job if they are not already in an apprenticeship or a job or full time education [...] we should aspire to establish certain rights – the right to a free education, the right to youth employment". 

You'll have to pick up tomorrow's NS to read the full piece (subscribe here), but here are some highlights. 

No EU referendum for Scots

Salmond rules out holding a referendum on the new EU membership terms of an independent Scotland. 

You don’t hold a referendum unless you support the policy. Our policy is to remain part of Europe 

On Cameron: "You can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed"

He derides Cameron's capitulation to UKIP and the Tory backbenches over an EU referendum, suggesting that he has "learned nothing from the past" and quipping, "you can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed". 

When Cameron came in in 2010 he did something very smart. He called the Scandinavian governments together and sat down in talks about a strategy for joint initiatives within the EU. That was very smart in the sense that some of these countries are natural allies. Sweden is a natural ally on the currency, for example. This got him a lot of credibility. Then he abandoned the attempt at reform from a perspective of building alliances and forming a northern bloc that would counterbalance some of the difficulties in the way the commission goes about its work . . . He’s done this in order to appease Nigel Farage! You can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed.

He suggests that the increasing uncertainty over Britain's EU membership is already raising support for independence. 

The Scotland/Europe plat­form was a huge advantage to the SNP in the Nineties. Because of what’s happened in Europe and the eurozone it was becoming a negative. Now it’s swung back to being a strong positive. Scots are much more comfortable about being an independent country in a European context.

As I recently noted, one poll showed that the No campaign's eight-point lead disappears when Scots are asked how they would vote if the UK appeared likely to leave the EU. 

On Scottish national identity and Britishness

In some of his most striking comments, Salmond remarks that he has "a British aspect" to his identity. 

One of the great attractions of Scottish nationalism is that it’s very much a multilayered identity. It’s never been sensible to tell people they have only one to choose. I’m not sure what the Scottish equivalent of the cricket test would be.

I’ve got a British aspect to my identity. Scottishness is my primary identity but I’ve got Britishness and a European identity.

On the "bedroom tax": the new poll tax

One issue Salmond believes will tilt the odds in his favour is the "bedroom tax". He argues that it could have "the same galvanising effect as the poll tax" and declares that "no Scottish politician with an ounce of sanity would have introduced it". 

On Ed Miliband and Labour: "people still blame them"

He is unimpressed with Miliband's performance as Labour leader, citing his failure to separate himself from those "who could be given central responsibility" for the crash as his defining error. 

I’d agree with the polls that he’s lagging some way behind his party. What’s Labour’s central problem? People still blame them for the financial situation in the country. That’s essential. It’s the blame for the economic crisis stupid argument.

What Miliband had to do was separate himself totally from the people who could be given central responsibility. He attempted to do that when he appointed [Alan] Johnson as shadow chancellor. He can’t forswear the past when he has the past sitting next to him. Ed Balls? Yes, absolutely. He’s got a choice. He can combine bits of the Brownite wing with his wing or whatever. Or he’s got to say: ‘Look we have to win an election and to win we have to clear the decks. But time is getting quite short for clearing the decks. He’s said that Gordon Brown was wrong on immigration. But a departure on economic policy is the more important, and involves a more substantial thing to do

On Alistair Darling and Better Together: they'll "run out of steam"

Salmond accuses Darling of feeding voters "a diet of unremitting negativity" and declares that the No campaign will "run out of steam" before September 2014.

If you feed people a diet of unremitting negativity they will laugh at you in the end. The campaign is a bit like Dracula in one of those Hammer films . . . it will be dragged out in the light of day and crumble. Darling is leading the Tory campaign [to retain the Union] and Gordon Brown is leading the Labour campaign. In that way, they won’t have to meet very often

On tuition fees: English students would still pay

EU law allows discrimination within member states but not between them, which explains why Scottish universities are able to charge English students tuition fees, while other EU citizens enjoy free higher education. But Salmond suggests that this will remain the case even if Scotland and England separate.

English students would be required to pay tuition fees and other EU students would be required to pay a management fee, as in Ireland. This would be less than the cost of tuition fees. If anyone is discriminating against English students it is the Westminster government by introducing £9,000 tuition fees. The fault lies not with us but within yourselves, and by the way I like Shakespeare, even though he's English.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.