A time to act, a time to wait

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by Martin Hannan

After his meetings in London, First Minister Alex Salmond has returned to a windy Scotland to get down to the business of running this country.

The election with its staggering result is already fading into golden memory, and with the first Cabinet meeting today and tomorrow’s big set piece debate in Parliament, we should start to learn a whole lot more about the Government’s way ahead. Mr Salmond will kick off the debate with his opening statement on ‘Taking Scotland Forward.’ He is expected to outline the priorities and modus operandi of the Government, and we already know several areas that he is concentrating on: sorting out the Scotland Bill; ensuring that Scotland has more borrowing powers and control of corporation tax; Scotland to have its share of the Crown Estate revenues; the Scottish Government to control Scottish excise, a crucial measure to allow the minimum pricing of alcohol; supervision of broadcasting so that a Scottish digital channel could be created; more say for Scotland in European affairs for Scotland; tackling sectarianism; getting that Fossil Fuel Levy money freed up for growing green industries in Scotland.

From the outset, however, the FM has made it clear that Scotland’s economy is the new Government’s overriding concern. And so it should be.

If anything symbolised the Government’s priorities, it was the announcement this morning direct from the First Minister’s office that Amazon is to create 900 jobs at a new customer service centre in Edinburgh.

Mr Salmond was delighted to announce the news and make his point about the economy: “The Scottish Government, Scottish Development International and Scottish Enterprise is working hard to attract new jobs and investment to communities across the country. This announcement reinforces and supports our message that Scotland is an attractive and competitive destination for major global companies to invest and do business.”

Chief Executive of Scottish Enterprise Lena Wilson said: “When a world- leading company like Amazon chooses to invest in Scotland, it sends a message to the rest of the world that Scotland is a world-class business destination.”

It’s good to know that at least one quango boss is ‘on message’ and there’s no doubt the Amazon announcement is a bit of good economic news for a country that needs it.

Expect more ideas from the FM tomorrow about improving the economy.   
Perhaps it will include, as Margo MacDonald has suggested, a plan for the Government to provide a running commentary on how much more it could do if it possessed the full range of economic powers that an independent  nation would have.

Which brings us neatly to the issue that will not be number one priority for the immediate future but will be the most important task of the Government over the next few years – preparing for the referendum on independence.

There are those who think the referendum should be held immediately to cash in on the SNP bandwagon. That is not the correct way to proceed, because as thousands of letters to the newspapers and internet comments show, people are not certain of what they are voting for.

It will take a considerable period to work out what the referendum will be about. It may say yes or no on the voting paper, but it’s not as simple an issue as that. The best brains in this country must get together and create the path to the referendum, and that is what the First Minister will hopefully authorise from tomorrow.

The Government has the mandate not only to call the referendum but to make the case for independence and must do so without fear and with full authority. A group must be set up to drive the referendum forward, whether that be ministers, MSPs, civil servants, or activists, or all of them plus media experts.

Meanwhile, the First Minister knows that winning hearts and minds to the cause of independence will take time and commitment, and an improvement to the economy may well be the factor that convinces more Scots to vote for independence. If he says tomorrow that the referendum will not be held until 2015, then so be it.

We’ve waited this long, another couple of years will make no difference. Getting the correct result is what matters, not the timing of it.