VOTING FOR A NEW BRITAIN: Salmond calls for independence

Home Rule
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The Independent Online
ALEX SALMOND, the Scottish National Party leader, broke his virtual silence yesterday on the issue that most defines his party - independence. After weeks of playing down the SNP's separatist goal, Mr Salmond made clear home rule was just a stepping stone.

Today's elections were only a start, the SNP leader told a band of supporters and a much larger media gaggle on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. "It is the start of a process which will lead to a free, independent Scotland. That is our goal, that is our aim," he said.

The declaration came in the penultimate sentence of a brief speech before boarding his battle bus. It was not in the distributed text, but followed directly on cheers for the MP Roseanna Cunningham when she said Scotland was rolling on to independence.

Mr Salmond and his advisers have been criticised within the SNP for the low priority accorded independence in the campaign. A proposal to hold a referendum on the issue was relegated to the bottom of the SNP's pledge card list.

If the SNP fails to win at least 40 of the Parliament's 129 seats, Mr Salmond's 10-year leadership of the party could threatened. Ms Cunningham has remained publicly loyal to Mr Salmond since she rattled him 18 months ago by calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but she would be a popular challenger among SNP radicals. Mr Salmond said it summed up Labour's campaign that the party's last message should have come from thePrime Minister in London.

Mr Salmond said: "London Labour are losing ground and losing their nerve. Tony Blair's panicky message shows Labour are deeply worried about what is happening."

Meanwhile Labour began its last day of campaigning amid fresh talk of coalition deals with the Lib-Dems. Hosting their last press conference of the campaign, Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown insisted they were still pushing hard for a Labour majority in the Holyrood Parliament. Asked whether university tuition fees could form part of a Lib-Lab deal, the Secretary of State for Scotland replied: "My answer must be that we will consider any situation that arises when it does. If I do have to talk to anyone ... I hope those talks will be private and not the subject of public speculation."

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Brown warned that the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland could endanger plans to create university places. "We are creating 42,000 extra places over four years. In order to raise the number of students ... we have devised this new funding relationship," he said. He added a plea that Scottish Labour voters should not use their second vote, for party list candidates, to back a smaller party. Labour could win a substantial number of seats on the second ballot, he said.

"The key thing is to persuade people this new voting system makes sense, and to relay to them the advantage of making their second vote the same as their first," he said.