Stephen Khan: Another step towards the ultimate goal: independence

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The Independent Online

Whenever Alex Salmond moves, he is accused by opponents of attempting to drive a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK. So yesterday, as he unveiled his programme for government north of the border, they were keen to suggest it was all about exacerbating differences rather than simply running Scotland.

Are they right? Probably, but that's hardly surprising given that his party's main aim is to break the Union. And yesterday he did mention the issue of local taxation a lot. In Scotland that serves as a reminder of one thing: the poll tax. The Scots saw themselves as guinea pigs in Margaret Thatcher's flawed attempt to replace the old rates system and they never forgave the Tories. The poll tax was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than in the rest of the UK and the rebellion against it had its roots in the streets of Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh. It was seen as a very English idea being imposed on Scots.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and Mr Salmond is subtly reminding Scots of that fight. The council tax that replaced Thatcher's pet project is unfair and of no use to Scots, says Salmond.

The rump representation of the Conservative Party is opposed, as is bedraggled Scottish Labour. And while the Liberal Democrats want a local income tax, they don't want Salmond's one.

But he'll probably manage to force through some reformed system of local taxation and in doing so create another important difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK ahead of a proposed independence referendum in 2010 (by which time the Tories may well be back in power at Westminster). And that perception of difference is fundamental.

Because while Scots might declare they are proud Scots, they often behave British. We've seen it this summer, as they cheered Chris Hoy and his UK team-mates to Olympic glory. We see it among the hundreds of thousands of Scots who settle happily south of the border. Most starkly, though, we see it in polls that continue to show support for independence running at no more than a third of the Scottish population.

So Mr Salmond has to make more Scots feel less like they want to be part of Britain. There is no better way to do so than by reviving memories of the poll tax.