LONDON — Ask a pundit who Britain's savviest politician is, and there's a good chance the name that comes back won't belong to someone who haunts the halls of power here in London. Instead, the accolade might well go to Alex Salmond, the head of Scotland's semiautonomous government in Edinburgh.
Last year, voters north of the English border gave Salmond's Scottish National Party, or SNP, an astonishing majority in the Scottish Parliament, instantly transforming the political landscape and turning First Minister Salmond into one of Britain's most powerful leaders.
Salmond, 57, immediately set about pursuing his and his party's fondest dream: the death of modern Britain — or the birth (rebirth, they insist) of an independent Scotland, no longer yoked to England and Wales.
Now Scots look set to decide whether they want just such a divorce after more than 300 years of togetherness. Salmond's administration and the British central government are hashing out the final details of a referendum on independence, most likely to be put before voters in 2014.
Salmond, whose feisty and folksy manner has endeared him to many of his fellow Scots, is to arrive in the United States on Tuesday for a weeklong visit. He spoke to The Times recently in London.
Polls have rarely, if ever, shown a majority of Scots to be in favor of full independence. So why insist on a referendum now?
Polls vary, but independence regularly is the most popular option of three options that are usually offered to people. One is no change from the current situation; second is what's often called devo [devolution] max, or fiscal autonomy; and the other is independence....
But the U.K. government is clearly not willing to offer devo max or fiscal autonomy as an option. So I suspect … a lot's going to depend on people who support economic powers for the [Scottish] Parliament but find that the U.K. government's stopping them being able to move forward.... I think people in these circumstances would want a change.
If Scots vote yes, how quickly could an independent Scotland be up and running?
The vote's in two years' time, 2014. We would anticipate that the elections in 2016 would be the elections for an independent parliament....
We have a parliament functioning already.... All that's happening is that instead of controlling 60% of spending in Scotland, we'd control 100%. Instead of controlling 12% of revenue in Scotland, we'd control 100%....
It's much easier to bring about that transition ... than it would be if you were effectively starting from scratch.
If Scots vote no on independence, do you think that, politically, you will have set back the independence movement for at least a generation?
I've always tried to hypothesize on success rather than failure, so let's just leave it at that.
Can you name any ways that Scotland has benefited from being part of Britain?
Undoubtedly in the last 300 years there have been a variety of things which I'm proud of Scotland being part of — a Britain that resisted Nazism in Europe in the 1940s, for example.... [But] you don't have to be part of Britain, the British state, to have joint endeavors....
In international engagements, I think the action in Libya was justified, proportionate and successful, whereas the action in Iraq was illegal, disastrous, all-consuming in human life and human treasure. We would've taken part as an independent country under United Nations sanction in the first but we wouldn't have taken part in the invasion of Iraq.
Independence is about the right to choose, the right to choose what you do and who with.
Is it possible to be a true and proud Scot yet still believe that it's better to be part of Britain?
Yes. My late mother, for example, was a proud Scot who, though she did vote SNP in her latter days … for most of her days she didn't. Of course it is. I've never suggested anything to the contrary.
So those who will be campaigning in favor of the union are just as much patriots.
You don't judge patriotism by a political stance. You judge patriotism by what you believe and what you do.
Do you ever refer to yourself as British?
I think of myself as a Scot first. There is a British connection, there's a European connection, but my identity is Scottish....
But this idea that you can only have one layer of identity is not a trap that we've fallen into in Scotland. People can be Scottish and English, Scottish and British, Scottish and Irish. They can be, in many cases, Scottish and Pakistani, Scottish and Kashmiri, Scottish and American.
You once described London's take of North Sea oil revenue as the "greatest act of international larceny since the Spanish stole the Inca gold." Do you still believe that?
I said that in 1980 or something like that.... I'm not rescinding [it]. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to say.... There are actually very few examples of countries with a huge natural resource which have had no direct benefit in terms of revenue.
For example, a Canadian province or an American state would have some resource benefit from a massive natural resource.... Even within countries it's unusual for this split of revenues to become 100-0, in percentage terms, which is what Westminster [the British government] decided was appropriate with regard to Scottish North Sea oil....
Occasionally politicians will say things that they have cause to regret, and I'm no exception to that, but I don't think that's one of them.
Would you like to see Scotland remain part of NATO?
These matters would be for the determination of the independent Scottish Parliament. But I support the proposition ... that we should be prepared to continue membership in NATO on the provision and on the acceptance of a non-nuclear status within NATO.... That would be a condition of membership.
Given all its problems as a single currency, would you still like to see Scotland adopt the euro?
The SNP policy was never to adopt the euro. It was to say that we'd switch to the euro if economic conditions were right and subject to a referendum of the people of Scotland.... Clearly circumstances with regard to the euro have changed considerably....
We propose that we should be part of a sterling zone.... It would be an easy transition for Scotland becoming an independent country.
Can you be truly sovereign if you don't have your own currency?
There are about 60 countries in history that have been in monetary unions or arrangements in various times, including many countries that have become independent from London. Australia, for example, used sterling for a long period of time after it became an independent country....
It does mean you don't control monetary policy, but you do control fiscal policy. You have control of your taxation and your spending. You can decide what to tax, when to tax, who to tax, how to tax, what to spend, when to spend, what to spend on and who to spend with. These are big economic powers.
Why should 16- and 17-year-olds be allowed to vote in the referendum, and if so, should they be allowed to vote for the Scottish Parliament?
Yes. You can join the [armed] forces at 16 in Scotland, you pay taxes at 16 if you're working, and you can get married. I think it's very difficult to say that if you're enfranchised and enlightened enough or otherwise to get married that you're not enfranchised and enlightened enough to cast your vote.
Will an agreement on the referendum between your government and the British government be ready by the time of your party conference next month?
I hope that we can get the agreement done in the next few weeks. It really would be helpful if U.K. ministers stopped trying to lay down the law to Scotland.... I don't think Scotland's in a mood to get Ten Commandments from Westminster.
There is something which is really important here.... If Scotland becomes independent, then you'll have an example of a country becoming independent in a totally civilized, democratic, polite manner. In 100 years of political striving for their independence, there hasn't been a loss of life. There hasn't been a nosebleed as far as I know. And that is a tremendous thing.
And if we can go on from there to create a country which will reflect the best values of humanity and progress that Scotland has tried to encapsulate at our best, then I'll think we'll be a pretty special addition to the world community.