When David Cameron delivered his speech on Scottish independence last month, from the safety of the Olympic Stadium in London, he appealed to those without a vote to tell their friends and family north of the border: “We want you to stay.” In his New Statesman lecture in Westminster on 4 March, Alex Salmond similarly urged those outside of Scotland to intervene – but on the side of independence. A separate Scotland, he declared, would be “a beacon of progressive opinion” and a “northern light” to counter the “dark star” of London. In an inversion of the assumption that Scottish independence would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative rule, Salmond’s contention is that a more just Scotland will help to create
a more just UK.
He pointed out that “since 1945, there have only been two elections – in 1964 and the first of 1974 – where the largest party would have been different if Scotland had been independent. Those two governments sat for a total of 26 months.” Although Scottish independence would, he suggested, have little effect on the arithmetic at Westminster (although the loss of Labour’s 41 Scottish MPs to the Tories’ one would certainly make
Ed Miliband’s task harder), its policies would aid England’s poorer regions, and the north in particular, by “rebalancing the economic centre of gravity of these islands”. His pitch to English progressives continued: the removal of Trident from Scottish water would “kill” the UK government’s plan to renew the programme, his embrace of Scandinavian-style childcare would be copied elsewhere, the abolition of the bedroom tax and other punitive measures would prove the welfare state can be shielded from austerity.
But there is a notable tension between his portrayal of Scotland as a progressive “beacon” and the free-market policies he believes are necessary to attract business investment. He reaffirmed his pledge to reduce corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK level (which will stand at just 20 per cent in 2015, the joint-lowest rate in the G20), arguing that it would be necessary to counter “the gravitational pull of London”. Unlike Labour, he refused to commit to reintroducing the 50p income-tax rate on earnings over £150,000, for fear that it would put Scotland at a “tax disadvantage”. The fear among many on the British left is that independence, far from being a progressive race to the top, would trigger a race to the bottom. It is this case that Miliband will make when he addresses the Scottish Labour conference on 21 March. With Labour committed to many of the centre-left policies that Salmond champions, he will argue that the UK does not need Scotland to serve as a progressive example. Rather, it will become a more progressive country by its own means.
If polling trends continue, Scottish independence will be defeated on 18 September. As Salmond conceded, even if the Yes campaign continues to gain roughly 1 per cent a month in support, it will fall just short of the “magic majority”. But he now enjoys that most valuable political asset – momentum. With the boundless self-belief for which he is famed, he ended his NS lecture: “I believe we’ll win; I’ve got that feeling in my bones.”