Leaders: Salmond faces internal battle | Students at loss

AFTER the toughest week for the Yes campaign so far, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is restlessness in the ranks of those who are pushing for Scottish independence.

As we report on our front page today, voices within the SNP as well as the party’s allies in the broadly based Yes Scotland organisation are jittery about a campaign that seems to be on the ropes and taking punch after punch after punch. They are calling on Alex Salmond to adopt a more “radical” stance, and to ditch the cautious SNP approach that seeks to emphasise continuity and stability.

Right from the start of the referendum campaign, this newspaper has pointed out the tension – if not downright contradiction – between the two wings of the independence movement. The SNP seeks to portray independence as simply the accruing of a few more powers to Holyrood in a natural evolution of the home rule movement. Gaining independence would be a smooth and painless transition. Key to this strategy is a soothing reassurance that much of the familiar architecture of the British state – monarchy, currency, membership of Nato, membership of the European Union – would remain unchanged. The SNP’s partners in the Yes Scotland campaign – including its figurehead Blair Jenkins, the Scottish Greens and the grouping known as Radical Independence – tell a very different story. They project a vision of independence that is nothing short of an economic, political and cultural revolution. In their plan, Scotland would be utterly transformed. Anything would be ­possible, including a radical realignment of the political architecture. All those things the SNP is keen to stay the same could in fact be ditched, and the slate wiped clean.

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Salmond would be mad to accede to these calls. Those making them believe the Yes campaign can ignite a new passion for the independence cause by selling a radical, transformative red/green ­vision of a new Scotland. This is a perfectly legitimate position to take, and one that enthuses many Scottish voters. But it will never come anywhere near to winning 50 per cent plus one of Scottish voters. In particular, it will never win over the cautious voters of Middle Scotland who do not want a revolution, thank you very much, who are worried enough about the recent radical economic changes to their lives, who seek calm waters and safe harbour, and whose votes are the key to this referendum.

The best hopes for a Yes recovery are for the SNP to publish a plan for independence in the autumn that further develops the idea of “indy lite” – a vision of Scottish sovereignty in which there is a great deal of co-operation and shared competencies with the rest of Britain. The referendum campaigns will inevitably converge on the substantial group of Scottish voters who have consistently backed a far more powerful Holyrood, within the UK. The anti-independence parties are edging ever closer to an offer to these voters, and the SNP would be wise to do the same. Whichever side wins the trust of this group of voters – whose views align with the historic position of this newspaper on the constitution – will win the referendum and a place in the history books. Alex Salmond has just over 16 months to win the trust and confidence of the average Scottish voter on the future of our country. But first he needs to win the trust and confidence of his colleagues in the Yes campaign. He needs to convince them that the SNP strategy for victory is the only one with any chance of winning the prize, and that by opposing this strategy they could, ultimately, be doing more damage than good to the independence cause.

Students at a loss

APPLICATIONS by Scottish students to Scottish universities up 2 per cent. Applications from all students are up by more than 7 per cent. On the surface, it’s an indicator of a thriving higher education sector – with students from all over the world recognising the value of a Scottish education. Compare that to the situation in England where applications are down, even though universities there are also recognised as among the best in the world. Part of it is down to the impact of the raising of tuition fees to £9,000 a year in England and the continuation of the free tuition – for Scottish and European Union students – in Scotland by an SNP administration that believes in freely accessible education.

But one unintended consequence of capping the number of Scottish students allowed to take up this benefit, as we report today, is that universities are being forced to raise their entry requirements, which has the effect of limiting the number of Scots who can attend. As the NUS points out, this means it is likely that students from poorer backgrounds will lose out as admissions staff narrow their choices to only those pupils with the very best grades. Universities will now have to be more vigilant than ever before that admission standard inflation does not deprive young Scots of a place at a Scottish university.