Alex Salmond described the voters who will decide if Scotland leaves or remains part of the United Kingdom next year as the “independence generation” who had “tasted” devolution and now wanted the power to choose “a different path” from the governments in Westminster they had not voted for.
In a competent rather than barnstorming leader’s speech to the SNP’s conference in Perth, 333 days before the referendum date next year, the First Minister repeatedly emphasised Holyrood’s progressive credentials and said an independent Scotland would renationalise the Royal Mail, scrap the bedroom tax and set up a Fair Work Commission to ensure the minimum wage kept pace with inflation and the cost of living.
He also threw down a gauntlet to David Cameron to take part in televised debates with himself over the contents of a detailed White Paper on independence – which will be published on 26 November, the week of the St Andrew’s Day celebrations.
To loud applause, he told the delegates: “We’ll publish the White Paper, then you and I must debate … The choice is yours. Step up to the plate or step out of this debate.”
In a speech full of socialist policies and intentions that would have been a star turn at any pre-Tony Blair Labour conference, the SNP leader tried to differentiate his Holyrood administration from Westminster under both Labour and the Conservatives.
He said the Scottish government’s record on free personal care, protecting the NHS from privatisation, the continuing free access to university education and council tax freeze pointed to Scotland having progressive priorities. He said: “This is not a something- for-nothing country, but a something- for-something society.” He promised that his party would defend the “social progress” made by Holyrood.
He announced a new £60m investment fund, with £20m contributed by the European Union, that aimed to boost business start-ups which focused on employment opportunities for 3,000 mainly young people.
And in a side-swipe at Mr Cameron’s promised renegotiations with the EU, the First Minister said: “We will not allow action on youth unemployment to be restricted by the parochial insularity of Westminster.”
Given Ed Miliband’s recent boldness over energy price control by the state and his admission that Labour had not abandoned its socialist inheritance, Mr Salmond’s avoidance of the word “socialism” anywhere in his speech was at odds with the left-leaning independent Scotland that he was promising.
On the UK minimum wage, he said this had failed to rise in real terms for the 70,000 in Scotland who received it. “If this [policy] had been in play in the last five years – the lowest-paid Scots would today be a total of £675 better off.”
With a twist of the political line advocated by the Works and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, Mr Salmond said: “Work should pay – and we must ensure that work pays by raising the skills and rewards of Labour, not be reducing people to penury and despair.”
The November White Paper, he said, would offer a written constitution, a promise to keep key public services in public hands and to protect the public against monopoly power.
On nuclear disarmament – again emphasising how an independent Scotland would do things differently – Mr Salmond said: “We seek a country which judges its contribution on how useful it can be to the rest of humanity, not on how many warheads it can dance on a Trident submarine.”
Scotland’s oil wealth is central for Mr Salmond. He did not disappoint the Perth gathering. He said only two of the world’s oil-rich nations had failed to set up oil-related sovereign funds to benefit future generations – “the UK and the Republic of Iraq. Vast oil wealth is not a problem for Scotland. The problem for Scotland is that, for 40 years, Westminster has squandered that vast oil wealth.”
Mr Salmond’s job over the next year is to convince those still undecided about independence. An emotional appeal for nationhood is expected to be part of the Yes campaign’s push to close the gap on their Better Together opponents.
Mr Salmond started the process in Perth, saying “the independence generation” were “truly privileged because, in less than one year’s time, we can stop imagining and we can start building”. Scotland, he said, had been moving towards the referendum date for more than a century, but insisted: “Our time is now.”