AN INDEPENDENT Scotland would provide workers with a higher minimum wage, Alex Salmond pledged yesterday, as he used his final conference speech before next year’s referendum to urge voters not to pass up a “priceless moment” by voting No.
In a keynote speech that set out a vision of an independent government far to the left of the UK coalition, the First Minister said a government under his control would up-rate the £6.31 an hour wage by at least the rate of inflation.
Such a plan over the past five years would have left people on the minimum wage £675 better off, he said. If implemented, it would ensure that the “rewards of labour” lifted people out of “penury and despair”.
“Never again will wages of the lowest paid in Scotland fail to keep up with the cost of living,” he told more than 1,000 people in the Perth Concert Hall yesterday.
The plan – five days before the SNP takes on Labour in the Dunfermline by-election this week – was a clear attempt to provide evidence of “bread and butter” gains from independence and to woo left-of-centre voters in Scotland who want higher public spending, aides said last night.
It also follows a recent poll which found that opposition to independence dissolves if people can be persuaded they will be better off by £500 a year.
But the raft of spending pledges unveiled by the SNP –which include a promise to slash energy bills and lower the age of retirement – prompted opponents to claim that the pro-independence campaign was spending its time “dreaming up goodies” for people in the hope it can turn around polls that continue to show clear support for remaining in the UK.
The pledge on the minimum wage concludes a conference season in which the SNP has vowed that, with independence, it would re-nationalise the Royal Mail, scrap the “bedroom tax”, and examine whether to suspend UK plans to raise the age of retirement beyond existing plans.
The 45-minute speech by the First Minister also sought to focus voters’ minds on where they want power to lie after next year’s vote. Salmond said that a private meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron last week had demonstrated that the “political cultures” of Edinburgh and Westminster were now diverging, and that Scotland was paying “a heavy price for Westminster decisions”.
And it also made a direct plea to the heart, urging Scottish voters to consider the way next year’s vote would be viewed by history. “What is the story they will tell?” he said. “They can say that we who lived at this special time recognised a priceless moment for what it was. That those who saw this chance did not baulk at it. That those who were given this moment did not let it pass by.”
He added: “After almost a century of Scotland moving forward to this very moment – let us ask ourselves these simple questions. If not us – then who? If not now – then when?”
Salmond also revealed that the Scottish Government white paper on independence will be published on 26 November. He told party members yesterday that the document – expected to be more than 500 pages – would spell out the “platform” of an independent country as well as the SNP government’s “vision” for the new state.
The manifesto will be pored over by opponents amid continuing questions over the currency, pension and financial arrangements for an independent country. But Salmond yesterday accused them of “talking down the prospects” of the country. Continuing attacks on Cameron over the Prime Minister’s refusal to hold television debates on the referendum, Salmond also confirmed that he will now hold a TV debate with the leader of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling.
Cameron, he said, should either “step up to the plate or step out of this debate”.
However, he added that if the Prime Minister stood by his insistence that a Scottish politician should be involved in putting the pro-UK case, “I will take on whichever of your substitutes you care to put up”.
Independence, he added, would not mean that Scotland could “wish away global competition. We will still be affected by it, influenced by it and often challenged by it. No-one in this world owes Scotland a living”. But he added: “An independent Scotland will have a parliament with the full range of powers and the people will have a government which is on their side.”
With independence, he added, there would be an “aspiration” to ensure that all workers in both the private and public sectors should be on the living wage of £7.45 an hour. On the minimum wage, he declared: “Let us pledge that never again will wages of the lowest paid in Scotland fail to keep up with the cost of living.”
In response last night, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said: “The SNP has had 80 years to work up its independence position so it is surprising that it has taken them this long to produce their white paper. Let’s hope the wait will have been worth it.”
He added: “Scots deserve answers based on fact, not assertion. In areas like pensions, financial services, defence sector jobs where they would have the power to act, the Scottish Government should answer the detailed questions about what independence would mean.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader Anas Sarwar said: “Alex Salmond spoke for nearly three-quarters of an hour but didn’t have a single thing to say about people’s lives today – just empty promises about an imagined world after independence. Scotland remains on pause while the Nationalists dream up goodies for the referendum campaign that they know they won’t have to deliver on.
“At the start of his conference, the First Minister asked the people of Scotland who they trust. After days of uncosted promises and baseless assertions, the answer won’t be Alex Salmond and the SNP.”
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP added: “Alex Salmond’s speech was retail politics at its very worst: everything on offer, but with no price-tag attached. He is taking the Scottish public for mugs by claiming that they don’t need the details, they just need to trust him and everything will be OK. It’s a big gamble for a man already shown to be untrustworthy on basic issues such as telling the truth about EU legal advice.
“All along, the SNP mantra has been that they don’t need to answer questions or give information because everything will be revealed in the white paper. Well, the SNP have set a high bar on what will be in the white paper and – now that we have a date – if they fail to deliver, the public will never forgive them.”