SNP is `hiding its separatist goal'

THE SCOTTISH National Party was yesterday accused of hiding its central aim of independence in an attempt to mislead voters in next month's elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said the SNP was engaged in "an exercise in dishonesty" and was too ashamed to mention its plans for immediate negotiations for divorce from the rest of Britain.

High-minded talk of devolution ushering in a less confrontational style of "new politics" was blown away with the blustery wind in Edinburgh as campaigning for the 6 May election began in earnest. Mr Dewar, mounting his battle bus to the skirl of a pipe band, said Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, was ready to say anything to win. A 10-point pledge card handed out yesterday by the SNP relegates a referendum on independence to the bottom of the list. Mr Dewar said the SNP was in disordered retreat. It was "a single-plank party busily engaged in trying to hide its plank". Mr Salmond, meanwhile, made constant jibes at "London Labour" and emphasised that Scots were ready to forego the Chancellor's "bribe" of a cut in income tax in favour of spending on public services.

Jim Wallace, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: "As Labour and the SNP slag it out, there is a danger that point scoring will take the place of informed debate." In the likely event of no party securing an overall majority in the 129-seat parliament, Mr Wallace could emerge as the king- maker. Rashly predicting the Lib Dems would win at least 16 seats (opinion polls suggest a dozen), he strongly hinted at Labour as a preferred coalition partner. "Liberalism is fundamentally incompatible with nationalism. We would not be prepared to entertain a referendum on independence. I believe that would be damaging to Scotland," Mr Wallace said.

But how far Mr Salmond is prepared to trim the SNP's independence goal to get control of the new parliament has become a key issue. The SNP's pledge card refers only to a referendum on independence "within the first four-year term" of the parliament.

PLAID CYMRU yesterday launched its Welsh Assembly election campaign amid claims that support for Welsh nationalism is at an all-time high.