By Andrew Bolger
Alex Salmond refuses to be drawn on details of the second question on the ballot paper in his promised referendum on Scottish independence.
Alongside the outright independence he favours, the Scottish National party leader and first minister has signalled his willingness for voters to be offered the option of fiscal autonomy, sometimes called “devolution max”.
But interviewed by the Financial Times at his party’s conference on Sunday, Mr Salmond said: “I am proposing independence. It is my job to define independence and I put that forward. It is not our job to define devo max, or fiscal autonomy.”
Mr Salmond is supremely gifted at creating political momentum, and the nationalists are on a roll – thanks partly to the weakness of their opponents in Scotland.
The Scottish Labour party and the Scottish Conservatives are both in the process of selecting new leaders, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats have sunk to single figures in the polls following their Westminster colleagues’ decision to go into coalition with the Tories.
But the SNP leader is also a keen student of odds, and he has been careful not to place all his bets on winning support for independence – the option consistently backed by only a third of the Scottish electorate, in spite of a couple of recent opinion polls suggesting support is growing.
Offering the option of fiscal autonomy gives Mr Salmond useful insurance, since polls have also consistently shown a high level of public support for Holyrood being granted greater powers.
Addressing his first party conference at the weekend since the SNP won an outright majority in May’s Holyrood elections, he said he was confident of winning support for independence in the vote his government has promised in the latter part of its five-year term.
The SNP leader’s stance will put the onus on Scottish opposition parties over how they will respond to this devo max option.
Mr Salmond said it appeared a wider group was coming together around the issue, citing Henry McLeish, a former Labour first minister, and Reform Scotland, a pro-market think tank.
“But they have to put more flesh on the bones,” said Mr Salmond. “Obviously the government will facilitate that, if they so wish, but there has to be a group arguing for that proposal – we are arguing for independence.”
Mr Salmond is travelling to the Gulf next weekend for a five-day trip that he expects will lead to a range of announcements of Scottish companies investing in the region and investments from the Gulf into Scotland.
The first minister has recently been involved in a series of jobs announcements, from companies such as Amazon, the online retailer; Mitsubishi, the engineering group; and Avaloq, the Swiss software group.
“All these announcements in the past few months have had to be battled for in the current economic environment,” he said. “The contrast with the UK government’s attitude to Scotland is very stark indeed. They seem to spend their entire time dreaming up ways of doing down the cause of Scottish independence. I think they should be concentrating on how to promote the cause of Scotland.”
Mr Salmond had earlier seized on David Cameron’s statement that North Sea oil would be around for “many, many years” to come – made as BP and its partners won government approval for a £4.5bn oilfield development west of Shetland that should see oil being produced until at least 2050.
Mr Salmond came directly to the Inverness conference after welcoming the announcement that a long-mothballed fabrication yard in the Highlands would reopen to service the oil industry and renewable energy sector, with plans for 2,000 jobs by 2015. He announced that £1.8m of government funding would help support the transformation of the Nigg yard in Easter Ross into a renewables hub, following its purchase by a Scottish company, Global Energy Group.
The SNP leader said this compared with the UK government’s “shameful” refusal last week to back a carbon capture scheme at the coal-fired Longannet power station in Fife that was being developed by Scottish Power.