Salmond explains 'big decision' on independence

First Minister Alex Salmond: ''What we wish for is political independence''

First Minister Alex Salmond has said a vote on independence will be Scotland's biggest decision for 300 years.

In a BBC television interview, he defended his plan to hold a referendum in 2014.

Mr Salmond argued that fundamental constitutional change required a "considered timetable".

The first minister was in London to deliver the Hugo Young lecture, following in the footsteps of politicians such as David Cameron.

In his speech, he said Scotland can be a "beacon for progressive opinion south of the border".

He claimed Scotland's current constitutional position means it cannot innovate as much as he would like.

The SNP leader will return to Scotland on Wednesday to make public his plans for a referendum on independence.

In the BBC interview, recorded to coincide with the lecture, he said he was hoping for a "constructive debate" on the conduct of a referendum.

He said: "This is the biggest decision for Scotland to make in three hundred years.

"As I'll be laying out tomorrow, I think we should do that in a careful and considered timetable.

"I don't think we should rush at it. I think we should have time to explain the arguments, to debate the thing thoroughly and then come to a conclusion as a country."

Progressive opinion

The lecture is in its eighth year and was set up in honour of Hugo Young - a Guardian columnist who died in 2003.

The 2010 lecture was made by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and in 2009 it was delivered by David Cameron.

Analysis

The Alex Salmond speech. His pitch is rather more subtle than to suggest that the English should seize the chance to govern themselves - although, of course, that argument is not infrequently voiced by Scottish Nationalists.

Rather, he is aiming directly at progressive opinion south of the Border, arguing that Scotland could be a "beacon" for such thinking, if given the power of independence.

He argues further that this would be more advantageous to the progressive cause, however defined, than despatching a posse of Labour MPs from Scotland to Westminster.

This latter point is a deliberate counterpoint to an argument which one occasionally encounters - including, in the past, in the pages of The Guardian. Distilled, the claim is that Scotland should not be independent - because England would be governed by the Tories forever.

Mr Salmond used his speech to argue independence would give Scotland the tools, such as corporation tax and alcohol excise duty, which would help to promote economic recovery and improve people's lives.

The first minister said the Scottish government has pursued policies such as free university tuition, no prescription charges and free personal care for the elderly because they benefit "the common weal".

He told his audience a "secure, stable and inclusive" society provides the confidence needed for economic growth.

Mr Salmond said that looking at the "chaos" of health reform in England he is thankful Scotland has its own say on health issues.

However, the looming welfare reforms show Scotland needs the powers to make its own policies, Mr Salmond said.

The first minister told his audience in London: "An independent Scotland can be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield - addressing challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness - and are capable of being considered, adapted and implemented according to the specific circumstances and wishes within the other jurisdictions of these islands, and beyond."

Mr Salmond said an independent Scotland could still work together with the rest of the UK in areas of common values and interests.

"After Scotland becomes independent, we will share more than a monarchy and a currency," he said.

"We will share a social union. It just won't be the same as a restrictive state, which no longer serves the interests of either Scotland or England."

Government consultation

The first minister's push for Scottish independence has been criticised by the former chancellor Alistair Darling.

Mr Darling said: "The idea that this would be smoothly negotiated with all the good bits going to Scotland and all the bad bits going to England, that's absolute nonsense and Alex Salmond knows it.

"He is the author of much of this difficulty. He would be far better concentrating on the things he runs today and making a job of that before he turns his attention to other things."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "Mr Salmond resents the involvement of UK Ministers in Scotland but sees no irony in his involvement in the politics of the rest of the UK."

He added: "The first minister can't answer basic questions about the future of Scotland under independence such as the currency and armed forces. He couldn't even answer questions last week about his police reforms.

"It a damning indictment of the first minister that his idea of progressive policies includes giving Sir Fred Goodwin a £3,000 discount on his council tax."

The Westminster government has accepted the SNP government has a democratic right to hold the referendum, but it would like to see it done "sooner rather than later".

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has already launched a UK government consultation into the issues surrounding the poll.

The launch of the SNP's consultation will be followed by a meeting on Friday between Mr Salmond and Mr Moore.

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