EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scotland’s parliament met on Wednesday for the first time since the pro-independence Scottish National Party swept to an election victory last week that paved the way for a referendum on breaking away from Britain.
SNP leader Alex Salmond, whose party won 69 seats in the 129-seat assembly to secure a surprise majority, is expected to bide his time given that public support for full independence remains fairly weak in Scotland despite the SNP’s popularity.
At formal proceedings in Edinburgh, Salmond led lawmakers in swearing allegiance to the Queen, but prefaced his oath by saying: “The Scottish National Party’s primary loyalty is to the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people.”
He plans to hold off on an independence referendum until late in his five-year term as he seeks to translate the SNP surge into stronger support for breaking away from London.
Polls show only a third of Scots want to end the 300-year union with England — the SNP triumph seemed less a demand for secession than a vote of confidence in Salmond’s management of a minority SNP government during the previous parliament.
For now, the SNP says it will concentrate on the party’s goal of securing greater devolved tax and borrowing powers.
“We’ve got a majority government. Our priorities are to strengthen the Scotland Bill and to deliver on our manifesto commitments,” Salmond’s deputy Nicola Sturgeon told Reuters.
The Scotland Bill going through the British parliament would give the Scotland more powers to raise revenue. It is not due to come into force for several years but the SNP wants some elements, notably the ability to borrow, to be brought forward.
Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to defend British unity with “every single fibre that I have.” His coalition partners also oppose independence, as does Labour.
“I believe that everyone in this house who believes in the United Kingdom and the future of the United Kingdom should join together and make sure that we fight off the threat of the idea of break up of our United Kingdom,” Cameron told the parliament in London on Wednesday.
“I want us to make an uplifting and optimistic case of why we are better off together.”
Analysts say breaking up Britain would be a tough task, likely to prompt years of legal wrangling even if Scots backed the move. The division of debt, the status of defence assets and control of North Sea energy resources would need to be resolved.
“If push comes to shove over Scottish independence, the biggest single question is likely to revolve around oil and gas revenues versus Scotland’s share of the national debt,” said Alastair Newton of investment bank Nomura in a research note.
The newly elected lawmakers swore individual oaths of loyalty to the Queen at the modern parliament building in Edinburgh, which houses a legislature revived in 1999, nearly three centuries after its predecessor dissolved itself in 1707.
Salmond, whose personal political flair many see as key to SNP success, wants to keep the Queen as head of state in an independent Scotland.
Home to five million people, or 8 percent of the British total, Scotland has retained many of the trappings of a separate state — its own legal and education systems, national church, flag and distinct cultural traditions, including its own sports teams in international competitions.
Its devolved parliament was established by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government after a referendum and given power over issues like health and education, funded from an annual 30 billion pound grant from British government funds.
The SNP has proved popular by maintaining free university tuition for Scottish students and not charging for medical prescriptions, things that must be paid for south of the border.
Salmond trained as an economist but his critics accuse him of promising to maintain a level of public service that cannot be sustained as Britain cuts spending sharply.
Writing by Keith Weir, Editing by Jodie Ginsberg and Alastair Macdonald