Forget Mahatma Gandhi, does Alex Salmond still belong in the independence tradition of William

Wallace, Arthur Donaldson, or even Gordon Wilson, the last nationalist leader to talk of the SNP being a “revolutionary party”. If the SNP keeps the Queen, the Bank of England, the pound sterling, British military bases, Her Majesty’s embassies, a unitary NHS and a host of other common UK institutions, there arises a serious question of what the nationalists mean now by independence. Or to put it another way, if Scotland became independent under the SNP, how would you tell? Would Scotland really look much different to how it looks today, apart from having a parliament with greater powers of taxation and borrowing?

I’m not trying to make a cheap dig here at the SNP for becoming bland and New Labourish. Nor am I hinting at some kind of betrayal by a leadership that is growing comfortable with the trappings of office. The SNP’s pragmatism is in many ways admirable. But as an independent Scotland becomes a serious prospect, it becomes important to establish exactly where the lines will be drawn so people can be clear in their minds if and when Alex Salmond is allowed to pop the referendum question.

Republicanism is long since out, of course, the Queen would still be coming to visit “her” Scottish parliament, and Prince Charles – possibly King Charles – will still be sniffing at the architecture. As things stand, an independent Scotland would still have interest rates set by the Bank of England, and Scots would not have to change currencies to go south, at least for the time being. There would be no border posts or separate passports and Scots could still be represented through UK embassies abroad, in the plans put forward by the constitution minister, Mike Russell, last month, though Scotland would have her own foreign policy.

The British army would probably retain a unified command structure, under the Queen. The Scottish regiment or regiments would not participate in objectionable wars like Iraq, but Scots soldiers would presumably be involved in other peace-keeping roles along with UK armed forces in places like Kosovo or Sierra Leone. Under the proposal from the SNP MP Angus Robertson, UK bases would remain in Scotland, which at least implies an accommodation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The idea, by the way, that the UK would pull its forces out of Lossiemouth and Leuchars if Scotland became independent is ridiculous – they would be even more keen to keep them there. Trident would go,

of course, or be decommissioned.

Scotland would still withdraw from Westminster and cease to be represented anywhere in the UK parliament. But we could retain a host of unitary institutions from the Royal Mail to the National Health Service. On a whole range of issues like maritime law, food standards immigration, animal welfare and transport there would have to be very close cooperation with the Residual UK. And here’s an intriguing independence anomaly. At present, Scottish universities can charge English students fees but cannot charge European students, because it would be seen as discriminatory under EU law. If Scotland became independent, English students could no longer be charged to study here.

The reality is that we are partners on a small island off the coast of Europe and likely to face many common problems. Take the banking crisis. Scotland alone could never have mounted a £1.3 trillion banking bailout after the collapse of HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland. But

as this column has argued before, Scotland never would have been required to deal with it alone. Most

of RBS’s branches are in England and called the NatWest. The vast majority of HBOS mortgages – especially the more toxic ones – are also south of the border. Both banks may have name plates in Edinburgh, but they are an integral part of a global financial centre called the City of London. Any London government would have had to include the Scottish banks in the banking bailout because of the significance of these banks for the RUK. As for quantitative easing and interest rates, these are, of course, set by the Bank of England.

Now, there are some in the SNP who are just a little concerned about the extent to which the present leadership of the party seems content for Scotland to retain a currency union with England after independence. The debate about when Scotland should join the euro – though apparently arcane – is really about this issue. Nationalists like Alyn Smith MEP and the former treasurer, Ian Blackford, think Scotland should ditch the pound immediately upon independence . The leadership, and in particular John Swinney, say on the contrary that Scotland should keep with the pound until there is a referendum on joining the euro. Swinney won the day at conference. To dump the pound precipitately means raising the unionist nightmare of “customs posts at the border” and Scots having to change currencies when visiting relatives in England. It would be a needless diversion.

But it does raise again the whole question of how autonomous the Scottish state would be. All these pragmatic concessions, from the Queen to the pound, individually make a lot of sense, but put them all together and you begin to wonder if the SNP isn’t about creating a new union rather than an independent Scotland. Indeed, Alex Salmond in his speech called for a “social union” with England after independence, which implies a lot of co-operation, even a New Unionism.

The success of the nationalist government in the Scottish parliament has transformed Scottish politics and put independence on the agenda as never before in modern history. It is still the aspiration of the SNP leadership, but the nearer they get to making it a reality, the less independent Scotland seems to become. It seems highly unlikely that Scotland will ever be a fully independent country, like Norway or Iceland, with its own currency. Perhaps this is why Alex Salmond is so keen on holding a multi-option referendum on independence when the opinion polls indicate that he would lose. It would mean the SNP could stop talking about independence and get on with the business of governing within the framework of the UK. To paraphrase Herbert Morrison, independence is whatever an SNP government does.