Salmond: set England free

With his party ahead in the polls, the leader of the SNP says independence would serve UK interests

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 photo graphed 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.

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 £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.

Labour has struggled to find a response that works. Both Blair and Brown told Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Min ister, 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. More effective could be Labour's economic claims. It argues that Scotland is so heavily subsidised by England that it couldn't possibly go it alone. An £11bn "black hole" translates to an extra tax bill of over £5,000 for the average household.

Salmond has to leave the weekly leaders' joust at Holyrood to his deputy and protégée, Nicola Sturgeon, because he leads his party from Westminster and from the BBC studio in Aberdeen, hoping to oust a Liberal Democrat from her seat just north of there in six weeks. It is a curious position for the man hoping for Scotland's independence to be in. As Salmond and I discuss the challenges ahead, he is just as keen to target hearts and minds in England as he makes the case for English independence. "A national parliament is rather a good idea. It's normal," he says. "I don't suppose many people in England doubted they were self-governing, in that the distinction between English and British gov ernment was not clear. But there have been a lot of issues making people in England wonder - top-up fees, foundation hospitals, the probation service recently - issues where interfering Scots want to poke their noses in English affairs, just as Margaret Thatcher used to poke her nose in Scottish domestic affairs." Deeply un popular in Scotland, Thatcher is credited with doing most to further the cause of devolution. Salmond says Blair's wars and nuclear missiles are doing the same for independence.

"The negative interpretation of the English view of Scottish independence is not borne out," says Salmond, who claims to get an even warmer reception in England than north of the Tweed. "It may sometimes be heard in a bar in the Home Counties, but it's not my general experience. I find most people in England find the idea of independence entirely reasonable. They're accepting and encouraging of people who stand up for themselves and articulate a powerful idea. That's part of the attraction of the English character." He also says: "The English . . . have respect for people who stand up for their own country and its own rights, and people who talk to them straight and honestly." He predicts amicable relations. "When Scotland becomes independent, England will lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour."

No end to EastEnders

Any arguments over the constitution arising from Scottish independence could be taken to an intergovernment body he wants to call the Council of the Isles, building on the institutions that sprang up with the Ulster peace process, and borrowing ideas from the Nordic Council. There would be co-operation on railways, renewables and energy grids. Nuclear weapons would be banished, but Scottish moors and moorings would still welcome English military training. "There would be a different configuration of the Scottish defence force, but would friendly powers be able to use Scottish territory for training and other things? Yes, just as the British army trains in many countries at the moment."

Plus, to reassure the voters: "They would still watch EastEnders. You'd want to make sure BBC Television is available in Scotland, as it is in Ireland at the moment. Obviously you'd want a Scottish broadcaster, and it might want to have shared relationships with the BBC in terms of programme-making. But broadcasting would be an area where there would be strong benefits from having a Scottish dimension."

First, a Salmond government would need to find enough Holyrood seats for a majority. The geographical distribution of votes left the SNP far behind Labour at the 2003 election, trailing 27 to 50, so there is a lot of catching up to do. Even if the SNP delivers on its current poll lead, it could still fall behind its main rival. Then there's coalition. Scottish Tories rule themselves out of "unprincipled" partnerships, but are cosying up to a potential Labour minority administration with a tough crime and drugs agenda. The Greens, pro-independence and with seven seats, eagerly want to be players.

Yet it is the Lib Dems who look the most likely coalition partner. Labour is irritated with them, and after eight years of sharing power, do they want to prop up Labour on its downward trajectory? Nicol Stephen, Lib Dem leader in Scotland, can agree with Salmond on more devolved powers, but rules out an independence referendum. Salmond is equally adamant that he won't do a deal without one. Past experience suggests they could, with some political contortions, agree to set up a commission, and punt their differences into the long grass.

As he surveys the constitutional tangle left by Blair, Brown will head north to park his tanks on the SNP lawn until 3 May. Does he have any new ideas? Not so far. But consider this: what if Brown called a referendum, with his choice of question and timing, splitting the Nationalists, and gambling on a No vote? For Labour in Scotland, these are worrying times, and they may call for extraordinary measures.

Douglas Fraser is Scottish political editor of the Herald

Scottish elections by numbers

129 number of MSPs

50 current number of Labour MSPs

25 current number of SNP MSPs

34% support in Scotland for the SNP in the latest ICM poll

29% support for Labour in the same poll

500,000 voters contacted by the SNP in telephone canvassing by early March

Research: Rebecca Bundhun

Scottish independence: key dates

1707 Act of Union dissolves the sovereign Scottish parliament

1967 SNP's Winnie Ewing wins watershed Hamilton by-election

1969 Crowther (later Kilbrandon) Commission set up to consider devolution 1974 The commission recommends devolution. SNP wins seven and 11 seats in two general elections

1978 Scotland Act provides for a Scottish Assembly, subject to a referendum

1 March 1979 Voters choose devolution, but the act cannot stand because they represent less than 40% of the electorate

11 September 1997 New Labour holds another devolution referendum. Result - a majority vote for a Scottish Parliament

19 November 1998 Scotland Act

6 May 1999 First election to the Scottish Parliament: Labour and Liberal Democrats form coalition government

1 July 1999 Power is formally transferred from Westminster

9 October 2004 Parliament building opens in Holyrood

Research: Sarah O'Connor