Leader: ‘SNP has its sights on independence’

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SCOTTISH Nationalists are in understandably buoyant mood at their conference in Inverness. It’s their first annual gathering since the SNP’s remarkable achievement of winning an unprecedented overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.

The party has now set its sights on winning a referendum on independence, expected to be held in 2014 or 2015. Deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon told delegates yesterday they had a “once in a generation opportunity” to achieve the party’s ultimate aim.

Some opinion polls are showing an increase in public support for independence – or separation, as Labour prefers to call it – but there is still a long way to go.

Alex Salmond opened the conference on Thursday saying the SNP had “all the momentum” in Scottish politics and adding: “A change is coming and the people are eager for progress in Scotland.”

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader and campaign director for the coming referendum, went even further, claiming Scottish voters “want to be persuaded” to vote Yes.

But the SNP must be careful about representing its impressive election victory as a vote for constitutional change.

The party’s election manifesto did promise a referendum on independence – but many voters will have seen that simply as neutralising an issue which might have prevented them opting for the SNP. If they were impressed by the party’s record in power, they could vote to re-elect them, safe in the knowledge they would get a further vote before any move to independence.

This week’s Ipsos Mori opinion survey showed when voters were asked about their priorities, independence was well below issues such as the economy, unemployment, education, health and crime. And only around one-third of Scots support full independence.

Mr Salmond was today giving the clearest signal yet that the referendum will include a “devo max” option – giving Holyrood full control of taxes and spending – alongside independence. On current indications, that would be the most popular choice with voters.