Scotland's leader woos Labour, women ahead of independence vote

AFP, Saturday 12 Apr 2014

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond set aside party politics in a major speech on Saturday as he appealed to Labour voters and women to back independence in the nation's upcoming referendum.

Speaking at his Scottish National Party's final conference before the historic vote on September 18, Salmond said that all parties will be involved in negotiating the break with the United Kingdom in the event of a "yes" vote.

"This referendum is not about this party, or this first minister, or even the wider 'Yes' campaign," the SNP leader told delegates in Scotland's oil capital of Aberdeen.

"It's about putting Scotland's future in Scotland's hands."

Against the backdrop of a huge dark blue Scottish 'Saltire' flag bearing a distinctive large white 'X', Salmond spoke as activists sang for independence in a jovial atmosphere punctuated by folk music.

The three main parties in the British parliament in London -- the ruling Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and the opposition Labour party -- have shown rare unity in their campaign against independence and for a preservation of the 300-year old link between Scotland and the United Kingdom.

But the SNP is hoping to appeal to Labour supporters in particular to vote "yes" later this year as the only way to secure a left-leaning government in Edinburgh.

In the 2011 elections for the Scottish parliament, the SNP won 65 seats and Labour won 38, while Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives won just 15.

The Tories also currently have just one member of parliament sitting in the House of Commons from north of the border.

"A 'yes' vote in September is not a vote for me, or for an SNP government in 2016," Salmond said. "It's a vote for a government in Scotland that the people of Scotland choose, pursuing policies the people of Scotland support."

"That may be the SNP, it may be Labour. It may be a coalition. I tell you what it won't be. It won't be a government led by a party with just a single MP in Westminster."

Opinion polls have consistently placed the "no" campaign ahead, and with 158 days to go until the referendum, the SNP hopes this weekend's conference will help boost their support.

One survey this week gave the "no" camp a 10-point lead, while another conducted for the "yes" camp found 40 percent in favour of independence, and 45 percent against.

Clare McColl, an SNP delegate and independence activist for 45 years, urged voters not to be swayed by the bleak warnings outlined by "no" supporters.

"Don't be afraid, it's just scare-mongering," McColl told AFP. "They are taking the wealth from Scotland from the oil and let's be honest, all the money they used for these illegal wars."

Surveys suggest fewer women than men are convinced by independence -- 35 percent in favour compared to 45 percent of men according to the latest Panelbase poll -- and Salmond assured delegates that a law guaranteeing "at least 40 percent female representation on companies' boards of directors" would apply in an independent Scotland.

He also committed any government of an independent nation to being made up of at least 40 percent of women.

"The cabinet is our board as a country, and women will make up for 40 percent of the members of the Scottish cabinet," Salmond said.

Scotland's Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denied the gender divide suggested by the polls was insurmountable.

"The SNP in past elections has seen gender gaps similar to the ones we are seeing in the referendum polls now," Sturgeon told AFP.

"We have managed to close those gaps by making a compelling case for change and for positive change and that is what we intend to do."

Scotland has had a devolved government since 1998 which has control over education, health, environment and justice matters, but London still decides defence and foreign policy.

One of the SNP's arguments for independence is that for much of its history, Scotland has been ruled by a Conservative government it did not elect.

The SNP hopes Scotland could declare independence on March 24, 2016 -- the 413th anniversary of the unification of the English and Scottish thrones, and the 309th anniversary of the merging of the English and Scottish parliaments.

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