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ref date:23 Apr 2003 (si)
SNP leader answers leading questions

In the latest of the series of special events, The Glasgow Herald newspaper - serving almost 1.2 million people yesterday staged a lunchtime public conversation between ALF YOUNG, policy editor, and the SNP leader at the CCA in Glasgow. DAMIEN HENDERSON records the highlights.


Alf Young: All the polling evidence seems to suggest that you're really not making the headway you'll have to make to achieve the breakthrough on independence and actually get popular consent to take Scotland into independence. Is that how you see it?
John Swinney: No. When people are asked "do you want an independent Scotland?" . . . the last time that was asked by System Three it was neck and neck. What that says to me is that there is still a case to be won. There is still an element to be persuaded in Scotland and we have a job persuading people.

AY: You say the mood is neck and neck and yet, when at the beginning of the campaign the BBC did a poll of the issues that people thought were important . . . a call for a referendum on independence I think came 15th out of 21.

JS: What that poll showed was that attitudes towards independence were polarised. You were either absolutely passionately for it or passionately against it. What that poll in general said to me was that when you look at the core public service offerings of the Scottish National party, where we are positioned on those core issues is bang in line with Scottish public opinion.

AY: The meaning you're giving to independence in the present campaign is a meaning that is a wee bit divorced from most ordinary people's life experience and existence. Does it really register with people when you say you're going to cut business taxes? It might resonate in boardrooms, but does it resonate on the streets?

JS: In a speech I gave to our party conference last year, I defined independence as an economic opportunity for Scotland. That's not just in a nationalist sense, it's in an individual sense. I want people to have the same independence over their own lives as they have over the country.

I can't imagine anyone walks around Scotland saying this is the best we can be. We're a country that's had a very poor record of economic growth over the last 25, 30 years and the question I'm posing in this election campaign is, are we just going to meander along on that same low-growth strategy that we've had for the last 25 years or are we going to do something different? There's no way I'm fighting a campaign which is just about the boardrooms of Scotland.


AY: I know it's some way away because it would require the kind of fiscal freedom that independence would bring, but you don't say how much you'd cut business rates by. The main rate in the UK is 30% and you've talked about the Irish tiger economies. Theirs is 12%. Would you go somewhere between those?

JS: Well, first, we're obviously fighting an election for a devolved Scottish Parliament which doesn't have these powers over corporation tax. One of the things we can do within the powers of the parliament to improve the powers of the Scottish economy is to reduce business rates to below the UK rate over the four years of the parliament. The question of reducing corporation tax is a direction of our thinking and we'll get to that when we have the opportunity.


AY: Is there a bit of you that reflects on the fact that, in terms of European averages, Scotland already spends on health around the European average and yet we're not seeing the European average returns from the investment we make in the health service - so there must be something wrong with the system. In the jargon of the times, we're not getting "value for money".

JS: If you take my stance on PFI (private finance initiative), that's not driven by being against the private sector, I'm against PFI because it doesn't represent value for money.

AY: How you finance . . . new hospitals is a debate about the future. I'm talking about the here and now. We are not getting the return from that service that would be justified by comparing with the expenditure of other countries.

JS: Some of that will be to do with the general health of the population which, as a nation, we have to tackle.


AY: Looking at you as a party from the outside, two of your brightest people in terms of ideas and arguing a case for independence are Andrew Wilson, your economics spokesman, and Mike Russell on education. Yet, they are in fifth and third place on the lists. That's a pretty lowly position to put a couple of your most impressive politicians.

JS: Obviously, I'm fairly optimistic that both Mike Russell and Andrew Wilson will be in the Scottish Parliament. I think I've put on record the fact that I don't have a lot of confidence in the system that was used internally for the ranking of candidates and it's an issue that we're going to revisit after the election to make sure that internal system is fit.


AY: There have been various suggestions that the proposition (to hold an independence referendum) would be constitutionally invalid, that London might say no. One of the most significant of those has come from one of your former colleagues, Jim Sillars, who has been absolutely scathing about you and about the way you've made that case.

JS: I think if you were to write a news story which said Jim Sillars attacks the SNP, it wouldn't get many column inches. I think the SNP is in tremendous condition and tremendous nick. If you look at the cohesion that I've brought to the SNP over the last number of years in terms of a focus on our policy, a focus on a clear political strategy for the election, a clear route to deliver Scottish independence, I think the SNP are perfectly placed to deliver on that. On the question of independence referendum, the most significant voices entering the debate appeared to be those of the highly-paid advisers to the secretary of state for Scotland or even, if I may be so bold, that of the secretary of state herself. The one party that has had an entirely consistent position has been the SNP because they've thought about these things, researched them and made it clear that the route towards independence is a referendum and that is the way we will proceed.

AY: And you have full legal advice that says that that is an unchallengeable thing to do?

JS: I am utterly confident in our own argument. I sat through the Scotland Act in the House of Commons and heard the late secretary of state for Scotland and the late first minister making absolutely clear, on the record, that the Scottish Parliament was perfectly able to conduct a referendum on the question of independence. I've heard it with my own ears.


AY: One of the other things that people have said about the campaign is that, for a party sticking to its principles, you've run a fairly negative and personalised campaign against the current first minister.

JS: We've run a campaign which has done two things. It has pursued the record of the last administration - which opposition party wouldn't do that?- and it has set out what we would do differently. That's been the shape of our campaign. We've launched over the last 10 months what must be edging up to 20 picture posters. What you tend to find is that the really positive policy ideas don't tend to get put on the front page of newspapers. I wonder why there isn't that positivism in newspapers.