Leader: Referendum debate gets down to the nitty-gritty

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WHEN he stands up in Holyrood this afternoon to unveil the Scottish Government’s consultation paper on the independence referendum, and then hosts what is expected to be a packed press conference at Edinburgh Castle, Alex Salmond will articulate what the SNP believes is the core message to convince Scots to vote to break up the United Kingdom: that we will be more prosperous as a nation in our own right.

Against the backdrop of the publication today of what are expected to be further gloomy growth figures from the UK government, the First Minister will insist that if Scotland had control over taxation, spending and borrowing, it would become a Caledonian economic powerhouse, creating the wealth to produce a more socially just and tolerant society which would, he maintained last night, become a beacon for progressive policies throughout the British Isles.

In making his case in this way, and the first part of it south of the Border last night, Mr Salmond is not so much appealing for understanding among English voters – it is hard to believe he would not welcome discontent beyond Hadrian’s Wall that hastened separation – as making a pitch to what he believes is the social democratic consensus here. With typical ambition, he is seeking to replace Labour as the natural party of the Scottish left-of-centre.

Yet, as is often the case with this First Minister, there is a significant gap between the perception he wishes to leave with voters and reality. The SNP’s policies of free prescriptions and eye tests for all, free personal care for the elderly, free bus travel for older people and the council tax freeze are just some of the initiatives which are regressive not progressive. Those who can afford to pay benefit more than those who are less well off.

This point was picked up yesterday by Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish Secretary, suggesting her party may have realised the folly of supporting measures which cannot objectively be called left-wing, though whether it was wise tactically for her to do so is a moot point, given that Labour, currently in the doldrums, will be seeking votes to oppose independence.

A second issue arises out of Mr Salmond’s appeal to the Left, which is how this fits in with his support for business and his promise to cut corporation tax were Scotland independent. Given the levels of spending on public services required to fund his social democratic Caledonia, it is hard to see how this circle can be squared, something which might make some of the high-profile supporters of independence in business think twice.

Yet whatever the merits of Mr Salmond’s approach, we now have the start of a political debate which takes us beyond dates, the number of questions and the supervision of the ballot. It is right that, when it comes to the referendum, the nub of the question will be about the economy, stupid.