Election '97: SNP sets out its socialist vision

Border manifestos: Nationalists pledge independence, and a care package to shame Westminster
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The Independent Online
An independent Scotland would make England look a mean-spirited place to live for pensioners, schoolchildren and anyone earning less than pounds 26,500 a year if the measures proposed in the Scottish National Party manifesto published yesterday ever came to pass.

There would be: 100,000 more jobs; 20,000 new affordable homes; 700 more teachers; higher child benefit; cold-weather payments for the elderly throughout winter; and, lower VAT for all on fuel.

Public spending would rise by almost pounds 6bn over the first four years of separatism, paid for by economic growth, defence savings and - by far the largest slice - the hotly disputed fiscal surplus with the rest of the United Kingdom claimed by the SNP.

Is it a fantasy? Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, insisted yesterday that Scotland could become independent and pay its way, citing an estimate by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that it would be the eighth richest nation in the developed world. He also cited a Treasury suggestion that Scotland has contributed pounds 27bn more to the Exchequer since 1979 than it has received.

Judgements by respected economists are being traded selectively by the parties. The Liberal Democrats deployed a paper by Jim Stevens of Strathclyde University asserting that the SNP's plans were based on predicting pounds 18bn of revenue "which simply does not exist" while the nationalists countered with Jim Walker, formerly of the Royal Bank, endorsing the "positive maths" of independence.

Labour's George Robertson said the SNP proposals were a "cruel deception and an insult to the intelligence of the Scottish people".

Charles Kennedy, for the Liberal Democrats, noted the irony of the SNP favouring London Treasury figures over those from Strathclyde, while Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, ridiculed the nationalist's "Walt Disney politics". "The SNP may be cooking on gas but they simply would not be able to pay the bill," Mr Forsyth said.

Setting out the most socialist-inclined agenda of any of the main parties, Mr Salmond said the SNP wanted to change the economy and society, balancing enterprise with social concern. But first they had to regain independence.

"We can only achieve these objectives with a sovereign parliament for a sovereign people," said the SNP leader. "We need a powerhouse parliament, not a new-Labour parish council which would leave control over economic and social policy firmly in Westminster's hands."

The route to independence is spelt out in the manifesto. After the election of a majority of SNPs, the party would immediately begin negotiations with London. In the last parliament it held four of the 72 seats in Scotland.

SNP leaders believe talks between "two mature democracies" need only take between 6 and 12 months after which Scots would be asked to approve the "independence settlement" in a simple one question amendment.

While people earning more than pounds 26,500 a year would pay more tax in the SNP's Scotland - largely because of the abolition of the ceiling on National Insurance contributions - the party estimates 85 per cent of male employees and 95 per cent of women would pay less. A "Pensioners' Package" would see the elderly gaining from a pounds 9.20-a-week winter-heating allowance, the scrapping of their standing charges for electricity, gas and telephones, and the abolition of means-testing for residential care. "The fact that people are selling their homes in order to pay for care is the most enormous scandal," Mr Salmond, said. Abolishing the test will cost pounds 45m a year.

Defending the new Scotland would be a navy with surface and submarine warships - but no Trident nuclear missiles - an air force and an army of 9,000 regulars, including commandos and a tank regiment. Traditional Scottish regiments would be restored wherever possible.

An extra pounds 1bn would be spent over four years on restoring Scotland's reputation for "educational excellence". All three- and four-year-olds would be entitled to free nursery education, and priority would be given to reducing class sizes. Student loans would be replaced by index-linked grants and a further pounds 50m a year spent on youth and adult training.

With 90,000 homes in Scotland deemed to be below tolerable standard, the SNP promises to allocate almost a pounds 1bn to housing over four years.

As for a monarch, the Queen and her successors would be "allowed" to remain as Head of State. However, in their absence from Scotland the role would be filled by the Chancellor (Speaker) of the new parliament.

THE KEY POINTS

Independence within the Commonwealth, with a written constitution.

Single-chamber Parliament elected by proportional representation.

Extend the vote to 16-and 17-year-olds.

Fair tax system with pounds 26,500-plus earners paying more. Lower rate cut from 20p to 15p in the pound. Ceiling on NICs to be abolished.

Cold-climate allowance of pounds 9.20 a week for pensioners and those on benefit throughout winter. Abolition of means-testing of the elderly for residential care.

Increase child benefit to pounds 12.50 a week.

Total ban on hand guns.

Extra pounds 35m a year for Scottish health service.

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