An Independent Scotland? Q&A with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond

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Alex Salmond, Scotland's nationalist First Minister (Photo: Martin Hunter for TIME)

For this story on Scottish independence out in this week’s International dead tree edition of TIME, I sat down on Sept. 30 with Alex Salmond at Bute House, the official residence of the Scottish First Minister. The following are excerpts from the more than hour-long interview.

TIME: The elections…

AS: We won.

Your platform is essentially independence, so does this victory mean independence?
No, the victory means that there will be a referendum. The mandate is to hold a referendum on independence, which we’ll be in favor of. It’s also a mandate for additional powers to the Scottish parliament as specified in our campaign and in our manifesto. Generally speaking it’s always good for politicians and the politics of the party to accept the verdict of the people. There have been occasions in British history when I didn’t think that was a good idea, but by in large I think it’s a good idea to let democracy work, it’s a reasonable concept.

So what would the referendum look like? Would there be one? Would it be straight out independence?
There’ll be one referendum. The question is: how many questions can we have…. You can ask two questions on the referendum but only have one referendum… To simplify things, there are essentially three options. You can have something which is what we have at the present moment or something very like it, something that adds minor powers of no great consequence, maybe interesting to have the ability to set the speed limit on major roads but not minor roads – sort of additions like that. The second option is to have a Parliament within the United Kingdom but with full economic powers in other words you would reserve to the United Kingdom the monetary policy, defense and foreign affairs and everything else would be run in Scotland. So you get full economic powers. And independence is clearly the most understood form. Independence is independence as understood in the context of the European Union in the context of some almost 30 countries at the present moment. There’s plenty of role models for being an independent country.

Would you keep the pound?
The sterling, well, it really depends on the financial circumstances of the time. We would tend to stay within the sterling area until such time as it is to our advantage to join the Euro and then we would only do it with the consent of the people.

The EU is moving towards a centralized fiscal policy. In joining the European Union, you’d be trading having your monetary/fiscal policy from being run out of London to being run out of Brussels in some ways, no?
I don’t think monetary policy – that is the control of the exchange rate—is a sine qua non of independence. There’s been plenty of exchange rate relationships over the years, but especially now there’s some 50 countries over the world that have an exchange rate relationship and a monetary relationship and they’re independent. I think in economic terms, independence means control of taxation as it did in America. In terms of fiscal policy currently we control 10% of our taxation base in Scotland. If we were an independent member of the European Union we could control 99% of our taxation base. We’d control everything except the VAT contribution. Now I think it’s probably true that if you’re in a monetary union there has to be a level of discipline on a county’s debt – a ration within that monetary union. And it’s certainly true that for one reason or another that Europe, given the exigencies of the last few years, they’ve let that position get out of control. But a country has to control its debt ratio regardless of whether it’s in a monetary union. Greece, if it had this kind of level of indebtedness, and it wasn’t in a monetary union, would still have difficulty with what had to be addressed. The only question is: is it capable of being addressed within the monetary union? Or do you have to find a way to allow the Greek economy of finding other ways to do it? And it will be interesting to see if the Euro area finds a way to do it. But the Euro area is not alone in the world with significant financial and structural problems, you’ve had one or two of them, if I may say so in the United States of America and there’s quite a few in Britain as well.

What do you say to people in England who say that Scotland is a receiver state, that they get more than they pay in?

Well, then they should be enthusiastically supporting Scottish independence… As the proper statistics, the government expenditure statistical report demonstrates annually, government expenditure revenue for Scotland indicates that all of the last five years Scotland has been not a receiver nation as you put it but a donor nation which I suppose would be the opposite of that. But look if these people and the various London newspapers who believe in this as if they got it in their mother’s milk, if they actually believe that then why are they enthusiastic for at least Scottish financial independence, if not full independence? The automatic draw away of believing that should be, “Oh my goodness, let Scots stand on their own two feet and we’ll stand on our own two feet.” The trouble is, of course, most of the institutions and people that say that what they actually want to do is to hold Scotland fast. Incidentally, the papers and journals and attitudes of the establishment, they’re got a track record on this sort of thing, you know. They’ve been doing it to many countries for many years – for generations, centuries. I dug you something up, incidentally, which I thought you might be tickled at having a look at. This is a pamphlet which was an answer to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. This was called Plain Truth, which was to show that the scheme of [U.S.] independence was ruinous and delusive and unpractical. It also goes on to argue that the States couldn’t possibly stand on their own two feet when they were the beneficiaries of the magnificence of the English exchequer and without King George’s protection, the whole thing would end in total ruin.

So are you throwing a Tea Party revolution here?
Tea Party is a controversial term these days.

Are you escaping the tyranny of Westminster?
Well, we’re not a colony. We don’t regard ourselves as being on the receiving end of tyranny. The principal difference, of course, is that we have democratic elections. And in democratic elections people have the right to do something about their circumstances. Of course, you might well go on to argue that once people go on to decide to do something about their circumstances, as they did this May in an overwhelming fashion, then it’s quite gentlemanly if the other side would choose to accept that democratic result. They don’t seem very keen on it – on observing the recognition of the power of the ballot box, but then that’s perhaps where the analogy lies.

Scotland isn’t America, America isn’t Scotland. Scotland isn’t Ireland, Ireland isn’t Scotland but you can look for interesting historical analogies and one of these is that the general attitude towards countries which are aspiring to independence is to tell them that the poor deficient populace without the generosity of the homestate would find life very difficult. It’s not just the message that was delivered by people like that to the States in America, it’s the message that’s been delivered to every country which has become independent. 50 countries have become independent from London since the Second World War. In just about every case they were told the whole thing would be a complete misadventure, a disaster. And I’ll tell you something strange. You know when I was an MP in London where I was for the best part of a quarter of a century, I met all of these high commissioners [ambassadors from the Commonwealth] at various events and occasions, countries large and small, rich and poor and you know what? Not a single one of them ever said we’re coming back under London rule, not one.