Glasgow, Scotland – A unique partnership between Scotland and the rest of the UK has stood the test of time for more than three centuries.
But on November 26, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, took just six minutes to deliver the document he believes will re-write history and bring about an end to the United Kingdom.
Standing in front of a 200-strong media audience from around the world, the first minister promised “a revolution” as he unveiled his government’s long-awaited White Paper setting out its blueprint for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.
“We will win this referendum,” he said bullishly, clearly revelling in giving what was arguably the most important speech of his 26-year political career.
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With a glance to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, he continued: “We know we have the people, the skills and resources to make Scotland a more successful country. What we need now are the economic tools and powers to build a more competitive, dynamic economy and create more jobs.”
The Scottish Government’s White Paper – entitled Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland – has been a long time in the making, coming six years and three months after Salmond first unveiled plans for a referendum on leaving the UK.
Running to some 649 pages, and spanning 10 chapters, it has been described by many political commentators as the “most important publication in living Scottish history”.
A host of promises
Contained within the weighty 170,000-word tome are assertions that the Queen, the exchangeability of Scottish banknotes with UK currency and membership of the EU would remain, as well as promises to remove the Trident nuclear weapons based on the Clyde and create a new 20,000-strong Scottish defence force.
It says the newly independent nation would take advantage of its tourism and manufacturing industries as well as utilising its vast natural resources – including wind and wave power as well as North Sea oil – to turn the economy into one of the strongest in the world.
Air passenger duty would be cut in half to attract new international flights, and corporation tax would be reduced by three percent to make Scotland more attractive for businesses.
Investments would be made in the ship building industry, with the ordering of new frigates for the Scottish navy. Last month, workers on the Clyde were suspected of being used as political pawns by Westminster, in its decision to axe fewer jobs in Scotland rather than England to boost support for the union, having ordered new ships from South Korea.
The White Paper also features a number of populist domestic policy pledges, including a vow to safeguard pensions, reform the welfare system and abolish the controversial “Bedroom Tax”, as well as offering parents full-time childcare.
A separate 200-page Q&A section provides answers to 650 of the most common questions officials have received from the public, such as whether or not there will be a border control between Scotland and England.
Those backing the Union, in the “Better Together” campaign, had been goading Salmond to deliver specific details on his vision of independence. It was at 10am on a dreich and rain-soaked morning, at the Glasgow Science Centre overlooking the Clyde, that he finally showed his hand.
Promising every person in Scotland would be £600 ($970) better off with independence, the first minister said: “This is the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published, not just for Scotland but for any prospective independent nation.
“But more than that, it is a mission statement and a prospectus for the kind of country we should be and which this government believes we can be.”
He added: “My view is that people will vote for our positive vision, especially one based on common sense and reason.”
But if Salmond thought the White Paper would silence the cynics, it did not take long for his opponents to label it nothing more than “a work of fiction”.
Critics deride Salmond
Instead of a credible and costed plan, we have a wish-list of potential promises without any answers on how Alex Salmond would pay for them.
Within 60 seconds of the launch, former UK chancellor Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, had already issued a statement of condemnation. “Nothing has changed,” he insisted. “The Nationalists have ducked the opportunity to answer the big questions about Scotland’s future.
“Instead of a credible and costed plan, we have a wish-list of potential promises without any answers on how Alex Salmond would pay for them.”
Lord George Foulkes, the outspoken Labour peer who served as a junior minister in Tony Blair’s Cabinet and spent four years as a MSP at Holyrood, agreed. He said: “It is a manifesto; nothing more than party political propaganda paid for by the public purse.
“We are well aware Salmond loses it on the factual agenda so he will likely end up having to wave the Saltire insanely, asking for re-runs of Braveheart on the TV and getting the patriotism and emotions going to get him over the threshold.”
However, senior Scottish National Party (SNP) figures insisted the White Paper deliberately avoided pandering to patriotism and instead set forth an intelligent and detailed economic, social and democratic case for leaving the UK.
“This is about putting forward a positive argument, a vision for a better Scotland,” said Nationalist MSP Bruce Crawford, the former parliamentary business minister. “Our campaign is all about hope and aspiration and about taking a nation forward – it’s the other side who deal in negatives and fear.
“We know it is the head, not the heart, that will win this referendum, and when people read the detail contained in the White Paper they will see for themselves the positive case on why we can stand on our own two feet.”
The economy has taken centre stage in the referendum debate so far, with critics claiming Scotland would be left with a multi-billion pound black hole in its public finances as a result of leaving the union.
Last month, the London-based Institute of Fiscal Studies said an independent Scotland would start life £90bn ($145.6bn) in the red as it would inherit its historic share of UK national debt.
There is also uncertainty over currency, and even though the White Paper states the Scottish government would carry on with the exchangeability with Sterling, Westminster has already warned it would veto any moves to stick with the pound.
An hour-long question and answer session hosted by Salmond after his six-minute opening speech was dominated by the issue.
“We have no wish to join the Euro,” said the first minister, a former economist to the Royal Bank of Scotland. “I do not think anyone seriously believes that Scotland could be forced into the Eurozone.”
The White Paper is being viewed by political commentators as a defining moment in what has been a bitter campaign between the rival ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ camps.
Some even believe it could narrow the gap between the two sides in the opinion polls, and act as a catalyst for Salmond to secure a narrow victory in the vote on September 18 of next year.
Uncertain poll results
The most recent data suggests little more than a third of voters back independence, with 47 percent in favour of retaining the union.
But Dr Peter Lynch, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Stirling, told Al Jazeera: “I actually see this as a potential 50/50 result and ‘Yes’ can win. It is a winnable referendum.
“The White Paper is important for the Scottish government and the ‘Yes’ campaign, because this is their centre piece, and a lot of the missing information has now been put out there.
“Whether Salmond can win it, though, I don’t know. It may well become a case of what might have been, and a lot of time being spent picking over the bones and reflecting on where it went wrong.”
The biggest problem so far is that people have great fears about the unknown of independence, whether that's pensions, social security, or the currency situation
Henry McLeish, who served as a Labour first minister between 2000 and 2001, is another who believes the result could be too close to call, despite what opinion polls suggest.
“Scotland can be an independent nation – that’s not the issue,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’m a proud Scot, I’m passionate and I like the Saltire flag but I also know that’s not enough to vote for independence.
“The biggest problem so far is that people have great fears about the unknown of independence, whether that’s pensions, social security, or the currency situation.
“But now there are some answers. One thing is certain, the gap between Yes and No could be very small on polling day.”
Established in 1999, the devolved Scottish parliament has been used to enact policies including a public smoking ban, free personal care for the elderly, free prescriptions and a freeze in council tax.
Independence would also give Holyrood control over all other matters reserved to the government in London, such as defence, foreign policy, immigration and taxation.
If Scotland votes in favour on September 18, the Scottish Government has already nominated March 24, 2016 as Independence Day.
One man who knows already how he will vote is Darren Jeffrey, a chef from South Queensferry, in the shadow of the imposing Forth road and rail bridges.
“It’s independence for me,” the 33-year-old said. “I want my country to be run by a government in Scotland, and one that has the best interests of Scotland at heart.
“Scotland’s wealth should be made and spent in Scotland.”
Follow Derek Lambie on Twitter: @DerekLambie