THERE was a degree of wishful thinking in the legislative programme announced by Alex Salmond, his last autumn statement before the referendum on independence next year.
Setting up a Scottish taxation service sounds impressive, but in reality it will be autonomous only in extremely limited areas. The authority will not have the responsibility to gather the Scottish rate of income tax, provided for in the Scotland Act last year.
The First Minister was trying to to two things yesterday: suggest a continuity between devolution and independence, by creating the embryonic institution of an independent Scotland; and also remind Scots that, whatever happens in the referendum, the SNP will still be in government until 2016 - and hopes to be in charge of Holyrood for a long time after that. As a betting man, Mr Salmond knows all about the wisdom of hedging your bets.
Hence the proposals to end automatic parole for serious sex offenders, abolish the right to buy council homes, licence air weapons and - on a less serious note - carry out a consultation on a national tree for Scotland. The First Minister wants to give Scots a clear message that this is an administration determined to use the Scottish parliament's limited powers to the full; that it is a government and not "a campaign", as the Labour leader, Johann Lamont has described it.
It is a timely message. In the TNS/BMRB poll today, support for independence is down to 25%, the lowest level yet recorded by that polling organisation. Mr Salmond may take comfort from the increase in the number of "don't knows", but he clearly has his work cut out persuading Scots that it is in their interest to leave the UK. The Chancellor, George Osborne, weighed in yesterday with another blistering attack on the economic case for independence.
Speaking in Aberdeen, Mr Osborne claimed that the SNP's plan to create a Norwegian-style oil fund for Scotland would involved tax increases or spending cuts of £8bn. He also argued that Scots would be up to £2,000 a year worse off under independence because of a decline in cross border trade.
This is a bold assertion given that Norway, with a similar population to Scotland, has one of the highest standards of living in the world and has an oil fund worth $700 billion accumulated over the last 30 years. Norway, which has a higher growth rate, lower unemployment and very much lower debt than the UK, is not perhaps the best country to cite when warning about the dangers of independence.
However, it is up to the Yes Scotland campaign to provide convincing evidence that Scotland could indeed emulate the successful Scandinavian countries. Thus far its case has lacked conviction, and if it wants to avoid a crushing defeat in one year's time, it will need to get its act together.
Whatever the outcome, it is vital that Scotland does not lapse into two decades of introspection and economic decline as happened after the 1979 devolution referendum. Whether it is Yes or No, Scotland and England will still have to co-exist on this small island. And as MSPs get back to business, we urge both sides of the independence debate to ensure over the next 12 months that relations are not irreparably damaged by negativity and name calling.
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