Monday, June 18, 2007

Scotland the Brave

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has begun discussions with the other two Celtic nations with a view towards joint UK governance in his visit to Belfast. The newly elected SNP leader will suggest to Northern Irish leaders that relations could be put on a “proper business-like basis” by resurrecting joint ministerial committees that will also including Wales. “It is not a question of ganging up, it is a question of formulating ideas in a constructive way,” he said. “And on many of these issues it will also be, in my opinion, in the interests of the Westminster Government.”

Salmond is travelling today to address the Northern Ireland Assembly and meet his Stormont government counterparts on his first official engagement outside of Scotland as First Minister. Salmond is attempting to improve the channels of communication between the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and want to re-establish the Joint Ministerial Committees to discuss matters of common interests with colleagues in the devolved administrations which have been in abeyance since 2002.

Salmond flew to Belfast from Dundee in order to discuss with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist First Minister Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness the possibility of their forming a united Celtic front with Rhodri Morgan's administration in Wales. He will also discuss the economic and fishery links between the countries. Salmond will suggest to the joint heads of the Northern Irish Executive that relations could be put on a "proper business-like basis" by resurrecting joint ministerial committees.

Salmond is coming from a position of strength after the nationalist SNP won the election in May 2007 winning the largest number of seats without winning an outright majority. The nationalist SNP beat Labour by 47 votes to 46 on the election held on 3 May. Salmond was forced to form a minority government on a "policy by policy" basis. He was elected as the Scottish Parliament's nominee for First Minister on 16 May 2007, and was sworn in a day later. He is the first nationalist to hold the role following three Labour first Ministers Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell.

Salmond has the reputation of a Nationalist hard man. He is a former civil servant and banker who was expelled from the party in 1982 for being “too socialist” but re-admitted a year later. In 1987 he was elected for the Westminster seat of Banff and Buchan and more than doubled his majority in 1992.

He was elected leader of the SNP in 1990. He served as Leader of the Opposition and Shadow First Minister in the Scots Parliament before suddenly standing down as Party Leader in September 2000. In 2004 he was returned as SNP leader with 75% of the vote. He won the May 1997 election taking an additional 20 seats from the 2003 election. With the Tories winning 17 seats and the Lib Dems winning 16 and the Greens winning 2, the SNP surprisingly entered into an agreement with the Greens (pdf) on “how a new Government in Scotland will be established that pursues a progressive programme and which places addressing climate change at the heart of its agenda”. Nonetheless an alliance of the SNP and the Greens alone are not enough to form government. This is where the neglected Tories come in.

The unspoken agenda in Scotland is full independence. A Scottish Conservative spokesman has publicly backed a referendum on independence yesterday, sparking a major debate within his party which he hopes will lead to a change in Tory policy. Richard Cook, the vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, said he wanted the referendum as soon as possible to "clear the air" over Scotland's constitutional future. Though Cook himself is against full independence, his parties 16 votes plus the SNP and the Greens would be enough to push the policy through parliament.

Though the Ulster Unionists are suspicious of Salmond’s nationalist agenda, the two administrations have much in common including the fact they both want money from the exchequer and increased flexibility to respond to local needs, including regional cuts in Corporation Tax. But some Unionists see Salmond as the enemy. Assembly member David Burnside said "I personally like Alex Salmond but I believe Ian Paisley is falling into a dangerous trap for unionism. He [Salmond] is a nationalist who wants to end the Union between England and Scotland.” He said “that has implications for Wales and Northern Ireland”.

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