Alex Salmond increases demands for more powers

Share this article

ALEX Salmond has stamped his authority on Scotland's newly drawn political map, using the first speech of his second term in office to demand a massive and immediate transfer of powers on tax, broadcasting and the European Union to his new administration.

Opening the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament, which he hopes will end in independence for Scotland, the SNP leader made an immediate call for UK ministers to respond to his landslide victory two weeks ago, claiming it was time for MSPs to "seize the moment" handed to them by the voters.

He urged MSPs of all parties to back a raft of new powers, saying he wanted the devolved government to control excise duty on alcohol and cigarettes, create a new digital Scottish TV channel, and win a guarantee of a seat at the European table.

The fresh list of demands - along with previously aired calls for the devolution of corporation tax and control over the Crown Estate, and immediate borrowing powers - goes beyond the significant new powers that UK ministers are proposing to hand over to Holyrood in the form of a new Scotland Bill.

But, buoyed by his victory, Mr Salmond said he hoped his defeated rival parties would support a joint call for the new powers to be placed in that bill.

It paves the way for months, and possibly years, of constitutional wrangling between London and Edinburgh, in the run-up to the independence referendum in three or four years.

The stakes were highlighted when UK government officials confirmed that if Mr Salmond ordered his MSPs to oppose the Scotland Bill when it went to the Scottish Parliament, on the grounds that the extra powers were not in it, UK ministers would dump it wholesale, rather than push it through against the SNP's wishes.

• Analysis: SNP bus seems to have clear road ahead and driver knows where he wants to go

• Sketch: Old joke provides food for thought

Mr Salmond's fresh list of demands came after he was elected unopposed as First Minister for the next five years. No other party leader put themselves forward, and Mr Salmond had 68 SNP MSPs, a full majority, behind his candidacy.

In a speech that set out his plans for secession, the First Minister rehearsed his assurances about how an independent Scotland would continue to have strong links to the rest of the UK, insisting that "whatever changes take place in our constitution, we will remain close to our neighbours".

He said: "We will continue to share a landmass, a language and a wealth of experience and history with the other peoples of these islands. My dearest wish is to see the countries of Scotland and England stand together as equals."

However, the bulk of his speech was given over to his immediate attempts to get further powers into the Scotland Bill, which is going through the Westminster parliament.

Mr Salmond has said he will not hold his referendum on independence until the second half of the parliament. In the meantime, he aims to get more powers into the Scotland Bill. The most controversial issue yesterday was excise duty. Mr Salmond said that, with a minimum price on alcohol soon to be introduced, the Scottish Government could use power over duty to ensure increases to the price of alcohol went to the taxman, not to the supermarkets.

However, industry figures said his plans were all but unworkable. A spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said: "Where there are different systems of duty in place, there would be an increased risk of cross-border fraud and illicit trade, as some people would see it as an opportunity in this way. Having different taxes on alcohol north of Gretna Green when there is no (enforced] border would certainly lead to problems with illegal trading."

A spokesman for CBI Scotland - the country's main business association - said: "We made clear in our evidence to the Commission on Scottish Devolution that we do not believe that any benefits resulting from devolving excise duties outweigh the certain costs. There would undoubtedly be costs involved relating to the identification, segregation and distribution of those goods that would attract different rates of duty. Any such change would not be consistent with the maintenance of the UK single market."

There was also confusion over how devolving excise duty would work within the block grant system. Some 1.7bn of excise duty is collected in Scotland every year by the Treasury. SNP officials said it would be a matter of "negotiation" as to how much the block grant would be cut if Edinburgh was to be allowed to collect excise duty itself.

On broadcasting, Mr Salmond said power should be devolved to allow Holyrood to set up a new Scottish digital channel. And he said there should be a guarantee given by the UK government that Scottish ministers would always be involved in talks in Brussels on issues that had a direct Scottish interest.

In calling for the devolution of corporation tax and the Crown Estate and new borrowing powers, Mr Salmond said he had chosen these areas specifically because they had attracted support from other parties in the parliament since the advent of devolution.

He told MSPs: "I have outlined six areas of potential common ground where there is agreement across the parliament to a greater or lesser extent. I think we should seize the moment and act together to bring these powers back home. Let this parliament move forward as one to make Scotland better."

UK government officials said all the SNP requests would be considered and that they would be writing to Mr Salmond to request further details on the proposals. On Europe, they said Scottish ministers were already representing the UK, especially in talks on fisheries.

However, any quick movement on corporation tax or excise duty is highly unlikely, with UK officials saying both would require a fundamental rethink of the current funding settlement.

The Scotland Bill could now fall in its entirety later this year when it goes back to the Scottish Parliament, when MSPs will be asked to pass a legislative consent motion, allowing Westminster to approve the bill.

If that consent motion is not approved, the UK government will not proceed with the bill. One source said: "The protocol is that Westminster has never legislated on powers that the Scottish Parliament didn't want. If the Scottish Parliament doesn't want the powers or the bill, they won't get it."

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said the constitution should now be debated, but both Tory leader Annabel Goldie and new Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said they would be vehemently opposing the SNP's independence plans.