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Scotland’s independence blueprint long on promises, short on details

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond holds the referendum white paper on independence during its launch in Glasgow, Scotland November 26, 2013.


Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond is considered something of a wonder boy in British politics, someone who led his Scottish National Party to a stunning victory in 2011 and is now on the cusp of realizing his dream of an independent Scotland.

But Mr. Salmond, a 58-year old former economist who grew up in social housing in Linlithgow, west of Edinburgh, faces a daunting task in making his dream become a reality. The scope of that challenge became clearer on Tuesday when he unveiled the government's 649-page blueprint for sovereignty, a document long on promises and aspirations but short on the details about how Scotland will unwind 300 years of ties to the United Kingdom.

Titled "Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland," the outline is loaded with promises about tax reform, generous welfare programs, ambitious plans for a constitution and aggressive targets for economic growth. There are also bold declarations about keeping the pound and the Bank of England, and joining NATO and the European Union.

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But just how any of this will come about remains unclear. Scots will vote on independence on Sept. 18, 2014. If there is a Yes vote, the outline says Scotland will immediately begin negotiating separation with the British government – and Mr. Salmond has set a completion date of March 24, 2016, a historic date for Scots as it marks the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the Acts of Union in 1707 which merged the Scottish and English parliaments.

The British government has thrown cold water on Mr. Salmond's plan for a currency union and other countries will decide if Scotland can join NATO and the EU. There are hundreds of other arrangements to negotiate, including how to divide the national debt, sort out state pensions, regulate banks and figure out what to do with the BBC and 30,000 British civil servants working in Scotland. In other words, much of Mr. Salmond's plan is up for negotiation, something not made clear in the blueprint.

On Tuesday, Mr. Salmond defended his plan. Britain will want Scotland to keep the pound, he argued, because it will serve the interests of the U.K. as well. Furthermore, he added, the currency and the Bank of England are assets that belong to Scotland just as much as the rest of the U.K. And he said Scotland meets all of the requirements to join the EU and NATO.

"This is the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published, not just for Scotland but for any prospective independent nation," he told a packed press conference at the Glasgow Science Centre.

His main message was that Scotland is being held back within the United Kingdom and it will do far better, economically and socially, on its own. According to the government's calculations, an independent Scotland will rank 8th among wealthy nations on a per capita basis and have faster economic growth, and lower debt, than the rest of the U.K., thanks mainly to burgeoning oil revenue.

"The key point here is one of choice," he said. "Unless we are independent we won't have the ability to make these choices."

Mr. Salmond has been fighting for the nationalist dream all his life, taking the cause to Westminster as an SNP Member of Parliament in 1987 and serving as party leader for almost 20 years. And there is plenty of his trademark political shrewdness in the document.

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For instance, women have been decidedly cool to independence, so the plan includes an extensive child care program. To calm fears among older people, there are long sections about preserving pensions. For businesspeople, there are cuts to taxes, and for environmentalists, a no nuclear-policy.

The No campaign, called Better Together, has launched a blistering attack on the government's plan, and so far opinion polls show more people oppose independence than support it, by a margin of about 10 points.

"The White Paper is a work of fiction. It is thick with false promises and meaningless assertions," said Better Together chair Alistair Darling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. "Instead of a credible and costed plan, we have a wish list of political promises without any answers on how Alex Salmond would pay for them."

Mr. Salmond has dismissed opponents as people preaching "doom and gloom" and "negativity." His message, he added, is positive, logical and hopeful.

And just in case anyone wondered, he added this: "My view of politics is the positive beats the negative…We will win this referendum."

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