ABERDEEN, Scotland (Reuters) - First Minister Alex Salmond on Saturday urged Scots to look beyond party politics and break the 307-year union with England when they vote in an independence referendum in September.
Closing the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) last conference before the ballot on September 18, Salmond said a vote for independence was not a vote for his party or for him, but a way to put Scotland’s future in its own hands.
His appeal comes after a narrowing in opinion polls that has for the first time in the SNP’s 80-year history made independence look a possibility, with both sides now trying to convince up to 15 percent of voters who remain undecided.
Salmond promised to form an all-party “Team Scotland” group after a “Yes” vote to negotiate terms of independence by March 24, 2016, such as how to divide oil revenues, the currency, removing nuclear weapons, and European Union membership.
His promise is an appeal to opposition Labour voters, many of whom bitterly oppose the SNP, which dominates Scotland’s devolved parliament. Salmond can count on concern among Labour voters about a continuing Conservative-led government in Britain.
“A ‘Yes’ vote in September is not a vote for me, or for an SNP government in 2016 (at the next Scottish election),” Salmond told 1,200 party faithful after receiving a rock star welcome at the conference in Aberdeen, the oil capital of Scotland.
“It’s a vote for a government in Scotland that the people of Scotland choose, pursuing policies the people of Scotland support.”
Salmond, dwarfed by images of Scotland’s blue-and-white Saltire flag and the conference slogan “Forward”, hammered home the now familiar mantra that Scotland “can, should and must” end its union with England.
Nationalists argue that oil-rich Scotland can afford to go it alone, and should make its own decisions and not have its fate determined by politicians in London.
Opponents to independence argue that the British are strongest together, financially and on the world stage.
Salmond said any government of an independent Scotland would control tax, the economy, social security, employment, immigration, oil and gas revenues, European policy and other areas now under Westminster’s grip.
“That may be the SNP. It may be Labour. It may be a coalition,” said Salmond, 59, who has taken the SNP from opposition to government during his 20 years of leadership.
“I tell you what it won’t be. It won’t be a government led by a party with just a single MP in Scotland,” he said to cheers, referring to the Conservative Party which has been deeply unpopular in Scotland since the Margaret Thatcher era.
Only one of Scotland’s 59 members elected to the British parliament is a Conservative, prompting frequent jokes that there are more giant pandas in Scotland - two at Edinburgh Zoo - than Conservative MPs.
“In an independent Scotland we can give this guarantee: The era of Tory governments unelected by the people of Scotland ... will be gone and gone for good,” he said to a standing ovation.
He repeated an invite to Prime Minister David Cameron to an independence debate which the Conservative leader has refused.
Salmond’s appeal for non-nationalist support comes as opinion polls this week showed support for independence nudging up to around 40 percent, up from 30 percent a year ago, and compared to 45 percent opposition.
SNP deputy Nicola Sturgeon said momentum for a ‘Yes’ vote was growing but there was a way to go before September and party delegates agreed to suspend all branch and national council meetings this year to focus on the referendum campaign.
“We have a great deal of confidence that we are on track to win a ‘Yes’ vote in September,” Sturgeon told a news conference on Saturday.
But despite the narrowing in polls, Alistair Darling, head of the pro-union Better Together campaign, said most Scots still would prefer to stay within the United Kingdom, and argued that a split would mean higher costs for business and less security.
Uncertainty over what currency would be used in an independent Scotland has spooked some businesses. Salmond wants to share the pound in a currency union with the rest of the UK, but the main UK parties flatly reject the idea.
“It is artificial to create separate states within our small island,” Darling wrote in an opinion piece on Saturday. “Cutting these connections would be like buying a one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain destination.”
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; editing by Andrew Roche and Stephen Powell