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The candidates discuss the issues
"There are two obstacles to independence...the Labour Party...and the need to build self confidence in Scotland"
 real 28k

banner Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Full webcast transcript
John Swinney (left), Brian Taylor and Alex Neil (right)
Brian Taylor puts your questions to the candidates
Click on the links to find specific issues.
Fuel Tolls Europe Education Abortion Elderly Child abuse Citizenship Reconciliation Regional funding Quangos Warrant sales IR35 Equality Land Tourism Monarchy Devolution Coalition


BRIAN: Hello and welcome to the first webcast produced by BBC News Online Scotland. I'm BBC Scotland's political editor, Brian Taylor.

With me the two contenders for the leadership of the Scottish National Party; John Swinney, the current party deputy leader and Alex Neil, the policy vice-convener.

For them the waiting will end on Saturday 23rd September when the party conference in Inverness will vote on who it wants to take over from Alex Salmond as the SNP's national convener.

Over the past two weeks we've been gathering the questions that you want to put to the two candidates, they cover a very wide range of issues, from fuel prices to taxation.

Let's start with the matter that's been dominating the headlines this week; that's the price of fuel.

Can I ask each of the contenders first, do you believe a cut in the level of fuel duty is justified, and if so how much?

Fuel:

JOHN: I believe a cut in the level of fuel duty is justified. We voted against the recent increases in the House of Commons. I've lost count of the number of times I've voted against increases in the House of Commons on fuel duty.

The government has to respond directly to what's enormous public concern expressed across the community, whether by hauliers, by the agricultural sector by people who just have to go about their work in rural or urban areas. Fuel prices are too high.

BRIAN: How much down?

JOHN: The SNP's proposals just now, immediately would cut fuel duty by 10p a gallon, that's two pence a litre.

BRIAN: But the truckers want 30 pence.

JOHN: That's our proposal just now. We want to move as fast as we can to deliver fuel prices that equate with fuel prices in continental Europe because we are at a competitive disadvantage just now.

ALEX: I don't believe freezing the duty is radical enough, I feel we need a 20% cut. I, a number of weeks ago, put forward a document calling for a 20% cut in fuel duty.

That would cost, in Scotland, 300 million. That would take 10p a litre off the price of petrol. It's that kind of radical cut we need. Rural communities are being destroyed, jobs are being destroyed, businesses are being destroyed unless we do something bold and radical we're going to continue to suffer.

BRIAN: You would do that on a one-off, how could that possibly be afforded?

ALEX: Next year, as a result of the recent increase in oil prices, the chancellor's going to have an extra 2.5 billion in the Treasury coffers. If we'd control of that money in Scotland, we could easily afford that kind of cut. It's only about 5% of the total oil revenue next year.

BRIAN: John Swinney, two pence, versus 10 pence?

JOHN: I've set out the SNP's forward proposals. We've got to make a swift move to get prices that equate to European prices. What the SNP's got to do is to bring forward proposals that'll deliver the biggest electoral hit for the SNP.

I want to bring those forward when it'll support our Westminster campaign and deliver the strongest possible direction for the SNP campaigning. We've got to keep the pressure on the government because they are the ones that have taken the dreadful set of decisions that have got us to this position.

BRIAN: Where are environmental policies in all this? Fuel prices were pushed up for a very good reason, to try and cut ozone depletion and to try and complete Britain's contributions to the reductions?

ALEX: There's two key issues here, first of all there's no evidence to suggest that the increase in fuel duties is having any impact on the environmental side of things.

BRIAN: So just give it up?

ALEX: There's no evidence increasing the price of fuel is helping the environment because it's not leading to the reduction because people need to use the fuel.

But the second thing is the real problem with the carbon dioxide emissions in Scotland and in the UK is through urban congestion and I think physical controls on the movement of traffic in urban areas where there is congestion is the best way to minimise that kind of emission.

JOHN: There's clear evidence from the refusal of government ministers to outline evidence as to how much car use has declined as fuel prices have gone up this argument isn't working.

The way that you counter the use of cars in city centres areas from causing congestion is two-fold, first of all you must look at the congestion problems and put congestion constraint on cities.

Secondly, you must have a strong public transport infrastructure that gives a viable alternative to use of the car. In our constituency, use of the car isn't a luxury, it is an essential way of going about life.

Public transport infrastructure in urban and built-up areas has to be strengthened to minimise car use.

BRIAN: Let's ask one allied question, from Dave Smith, he says truckers and farmers are morally correct in the attempt at bringing down the government with the protests we've seen over the last few days?

JOHN: I don't think that's the case, we have elections in this country that decide who runs the government.

BRIAN: Are you against the protests then?

JOHN: I'm in favour of legitimate democratic protests. I supported the Road Haulage Association protest. What I don't support is the restriction of supply of fuel to individuals, that's the lifeblood of our economy.

ALEX: I never heard any of the protestors saying they were in this to bring down the government. All I heard them saying was they were in it to bring down the price of fuel duty.

BRIAN: Do you believe the protestors were right to, it was described as a blockade although that was perhaps not an accurate description, were they right to interfere with the free movement of fuel?

ALEX: I was the only MSP who went to Grangemouth to find out what was going on. One of the things I was able to ascertain, from the police and the protesors, was there was no blockade it was simply a peaceful legal protest. There was no attempt at a blockade.

BRIAN: Do you believe the oil companies are culpable?

ALEX: No. The key issue was the drivers themselves were unwilling to drive. There were two reasons for that, number one a lot of them were sympathetic to the whole case and, secondly, there may have been some fear of intimidation, but so far there's no evidence of intimidation.

JOHN: The key thing is there were strong protests made by members of the public in all walks of life and if the government doesn't listen to that and take that on board, then the government is out of touch and will undermine our democratic system by failing to listen to the public.

Tolls:

BRIAN: Let's move to a related transport topic, we've got an e-mail from Jean in the USA about the Skye Bridge and Skye Bridge tolls: "Why are we letting someone get rich off unnecessary tolls, presumably the revenue is required to offset construction? Would you scrap the tolls?"

ALEX: It would cost 3.5 million a year to scrap the toll on the Skye Bridge. That would be money well spent, because it's an obscenity that people are having to pay a toll at all.

BRIAN: What about the Tay and the Forth?

ALEX: The total cost of scrapping all of them in Scotland is 24 million, plus the 3.5 million for the Skye Bridge tolls. The timescale for scrapping them, that's a significant amount, it isn't something necessarily you'd do in the first budget. You would start with the Skye Bridge.

BRIAN: If you're scrapping tolls and reducing petrol, these are bonuses to the motorists, there's going to be no incentive to reduce car use?

JOHN: Well you invest in public transport infrastructure, that's the tried and tested way of providing a credible alternative for people to go about their business. If I could get a reliable train service to get me from where I live into Edinburgh I'd use it every day, but I can't get one.

BRIAN: If you're scrapping tolls that's less money coming into the Exchequer?

JOHN: Any policy commitment has to be properly costed. That's the way we have to go about things and show where money comes from. But when you put forward proposals you put forward a balanced package of measures with clear impacts on the economy.

ALEX: It costs money, when you have high fuel duty that puts people out of work it costs you to put them on the dole. Many of these measures will be self-financing, you would get people into work and stop businesses going under.

Europe:

BRIAN: Let's move on, Scotland in Europe, the position of the European Union. Martin Hutchinson says how can the candidates reconcile support for independence for Scotland, while the Maastricht Treaty obligations says it's seeking closer union? Bruce Hodgeson asks are we not just replacing rule from Westminster with rule from Berlin? Are we getting too close to Europe?

ALEX: One of the points I've been making substantially, Maastricht in '92, Amsterdam in '97 and the Nice treaty in December this year, demonstrate there is an agenda working in Europe, to move towards some kind of federal state. I am totally opposed to that.

I have spent 30 years of my life campaigning for independence, I don't want to get sovereignty back from London to hand it back to Brussels.

I believe in the SNP policy of a confederate Europe where sovereignty remains with the member states. We have to make a distinction between pulling sovereignty on a voluntary basis, which I am in favour of and transferring sovereignty to Brussels which I am against.

BRIAN: What about joining the single currency?

ALEX: As an economist, as long as sterling is overvalued at 25% over the Euro, it would be economically daft to join the euro, that will cost jobs. In the medium to long-term it may well be in interests of Scotland and the UK to join the euro.

BRIAN: Have you any constitutional objection, the Conservative objection is partly constitutional?

ALEX: The practical issue is whether Scotland joins as an independent country. It's one of the reasons I am in a hurry for independence, because if Scotland joined as an independent country we would have a seat at the top table. If we join as part of the UK we'll be in the same position as we are.

There's no way I'll be campaigning with the Tories on this, I want to see Scotland at the top table in Europe.

BRIAN: You'll be joining Jim Sillars and teaming up with Malcolm Rifkind in the campaign against this?

ALEX: No.

JOHN: The SNP's got a strong established positionabout being positive about Europe. We've got to be carefuly about saying yes to everything. I'm in favour of a single currency.

BRIAN: Are you in favour of the UK joining as soon as possible?

JOHN: Yes, obviously the decision about joining the single currency has to be an economic decision as to when it's in the economic interests to do that.

In the current state of the currency divergence that's, that's not sustainable, it would cause too much damage to the Scottish economy to join at this stage. The government need to take steps to bring that date further forward and the government can do that by some of the measures they can take to strengthen the argument.

What's important is we don't fall into the trap of saying yes to everything. I can see the commercial advantages, we're a manufacturing and exporting country, you'll never persuade to me to sign up to fiscal harmonisation where tax levels are set in Europe.

That would undermine the purpose of Scotland becoming an independent country. I won't sign up to a European federal superstate.

ALEX: I don't think you can say, let's join tomorrow morning and criticise the fact the currency is overvalued by 25%. Because the Bank of England is independent of the chancellor, it's difficult to see how in the next few years the conditions will be created to bring the currency into line prior to euro entry.

That's why I think the SNP has to leave its options open in terms of the UK referendum on the euro.

JOHN:This government is apparently committed in principle to join the single currency they should get on with steps towards that process, but they're paralysed by indecision.

Education:

BRIAN: A couple of education questions. Joe McGrath, saying about the SQA, should there be a review into Higher Still and set education in Scotland back on a sensible track.

Do the candidates support Tony Blair's recent comments that comprehensive schools should behave more like grammar schools?

ALEX: I don't believe comprehensive schools should go back into the old days of selection and 11 pluses. That created a two-tier society.

BRIAN: But you could have more setting and streaming within the existing system.

ALEX: I'm talking about what Tony Blair seemed to suggest, that would recreate all the problems we had before and why we introduced comprehensives.

BRIAN: You think all the classes should be multi-ability?

ALEX: No, they should all be in the same school. You might have people sharing a class in English, but in different classes for maths or arithmetic or other subjects.

It's not as simple as lumping all the bright people in together and all those not bright together, that kind of education system is out of date and doesn't reflect the different talents of individuals.

BRIAN: What about the question of Higher Still and five to 14 and all the experiments in education, he's talking about getting education back on a sensible track?

ALEX: The lessons, hopefully will have been learnt after the fiasco of this summer. All the professionals have been telling politicians for years that the speed of the introduction of the Higher Still and the speed with which it was being introduced and the lack of resources was going to cause mayhem, we've seen that this summer on top of the crisis in the SQA.

BRIAN: John Swinney?

JOHN: Nobody's been listening to teachers. We need to attach a premium to listening to the views of teachers about what's best in the educational system.

BRIAN: Abandoning the Higher Still and the Advanced Higher?

JOHN: No, you've got to listen to teachers about the issues of implementation. Teachers were ignored by government ministers, about the difficulties in the implementation of Higher Still.

We've argued for better dialogue within the education system. We should have an education convention, an idea which has reached its time in the Republic of Ireland.

BRIAN: That's longer term, what would you do about Higher Still and Advanced Higher?

JOHN: There's a course of changes being rolled out which have to be sustained, that's got to take its course. My reflection on the last period in the Scottish education system is there's been too much upheaval.

To set course on another direction would intensify that difficulty. What I think is also important is we take steps, particularly in the SQA, these organisations have got to be drawn closer into the political process and to make somebody accountable for what's gone on.

I have watched government ministers slithering around, blaming all sorts of people. Ministers have to take responsibility and make sure things happen in the wider interests of people in Scotland.

Abortion:

BRIAN: A question from Cathleen Caskie, who is an SNP member. Should the Scottish Parliament be given control of abortion law? Perhaps, given you're in favour of independence you would say that, but the second one is the more difficult one to answer. In a free vote on abortion restriction, how would the candidates vote?

ALEX: It would depend what the vote was on. If it was to reduce the number of weeks, I would be inclined to vote for that.

BRIAN: To reduce the period at which an abortion would be allowed?

ALEX: Yes, but it depends on what the vote is on. You've got to look at what the proposal is before you can give a blank answer.

Two things, I don't believe abortion should be a party political issue, it should be a matter of individual conscience. I think it does need tightening up, the law as it currently stands.

JOHN: On the issues raised by Cathleen Caskie, I would vote for the power to come to the Scottish Parliament, because I believe in independence and I voted for the abortion law to come to the Scottish Parliament when we were passing The Scotland Act in the House of Commons.

I wouldn't be inclined to support any changes to the current abortion regime. There is also an importance of medical opinion being applied in all of the judgments that are made on abortion. In that respect we have a stable regime in which you have valid medical choices can be made.

Elderly:

BRIAN: Care of the elderly. Jennifer Gordon asking your comments on and commitment to the Sutherland Report, that's talking about funding, nursing costs and personal care costs of the elderly in long stay homes?

JOHN The treatment of the Sutherland is one of these classic modern political disgraces. It's a fabulous piece of work, it has been been in the public domain for a long time.

The government has taken an inordinate amount of time to respond to it. The Scottish Executive has taken longer than the UK Government has taken to respond to that. The Sutherland Report should be implemented in full.

BRIAN: By the Scottish Parliament?

JOHN: Yes, it's important, we have devolution, we can do things differently in Scotland. We should get on with it and start to create the type of civilised society all of us can be proud of in the way we care for the elderly.

BRIAN: Doesn't that lead to the danger we end up funding sections of the population of the elderly which don't need the money. Isn't that spreading the blanket too thinly?

ALEX. No, old people are selling their houses in order to get the care they need. I've got experience of this in my own family. It's a very unfair system.

Two things, first of all, as I tried to get Donald Dewar to do yesterday, to give us a commitment to implement the Sutherland Report in full, it only costs about 110 million a year to implement in full, out of a total budget of what will be between 16 and 17 billion.

Secondly, it has to be part of general attack on pensioner poverty which includes a substantial increase in the basic state pension.

BRIAN: It is not something available to the Scottish Parliament to do?

ALEX. It should be, these issues highlight the need for real power to be transferred to this parliament.

JOHN. That makes the point, we can't take an overall view of policy as it affects older people and take wise decisions about level of the pension which would create better conditions for older people and minimise a lot of the dependence on public services and other judgments required, which can make it difficult for older people to have a life of dignity.

Child abuse:

BRIAN: A question from Paul Steel talking about a difficult subject, child abuse within children's homes.

He talks about a series of scandals there and asks would you support a full public inquiry to get to the root of the problem and the call for an official support structure for those traumatised by their time in care?

ALEX: There needs to be a full inquiry into this. There's a case going on just now, going back 20, 30 years, there is a lot of public concern and we need to get to the bottom of this issue and see if new legislation is required to protect the rights of children.

We also need more resources, we're too dependant on voluntary services, such as Childline that are grossly underfunded, a lot of children aren't able to get through to Childline when they're in difficulty, we need to look at the funding of services like that.

At the present time it's taking sometimes years before the problems come to light.

BRIAN: Perhaps you could comment whether you support the care bill the executive are proposing, the regulation of care homes throughout Scotland?

JOHN: I think that is one of the measures that we will be able to support. Obviously we'llscrutinise it carefully and make sure it's appropriate legislation, but in principle it's something we can support.

In all of this debate, we' got to remember the children who end up in homes, have had a tough time before they've even got there.

If they go in there and their times are even tougher, then society's failed them completely. We've got to ensure the standards and levels of care are correct, and above all else, security and personal welfare of children in that dangerous position is strengthened by their time in care, rather than made worse.

Citizenship:

BRIAN: One we got a lot of questions on question of Scottish citizenship, we had e-mails from France, the USA Hong Kong and Scotland, trying to spell out in the event of Scottish independence what would be the definition of citizenship and would Scots who wished to retain British citizenship be able to do so?

ALEX: The position of the SNP is clear, that is anyone born in Scotland or living in Scotland at the time of independence would be automatically entitled to citizenship and anyone else can apply, same as you can do in any other country.

It would be a fairly open door policy. One of the problems we've got in a Scotland is one of depopulation, a lot of people would want to come back to live in Scotland.

BRIAN: We have an e-mail from a Iain Stewart asking shouldn't you encourage people to come back from America?

ALEX: Absolutely, not just America, we have got second and third generation Scots.

BRIAN: Could you stay British if you wanted to?

JOHN: People can opt to have joint citizenship if they wish, we would be in the same political union for the last 300 years, it's something that would have to be given consideration. It's not something I have objections to it. If people want to exercise that that would be up to individuals. It's not a choice I would make myself.

ALEX: There's a European dimension, as we move towards European citizenship, then already a lot of people have rights, if you live inside the European Union you have certain rights in other countries, it's not a black and white issue.

Reconciliation:

BRIAN: Here's a little cracker of a question for both of you. Andrew Rossiter asked to both candidates, if you win will you seek to reconcile the losing candidate and his team or will you blacklist those who campaigned against you?

John, there were early quotes from people purporting to be your supporters, saying this was time to clear out the fundamentalists, the oppostion, what do you say?

JOHN: You'll never hear me representing or articulating that position. I have campaigned on the basis of delivering an inclusive leadership for the Scottish National Party.

It brings together all strands of opinion and it aims to narrow down the gap between party leadership and members in the country.

I have been criticised during this campaign for not reciprocating a courtesy Alex extented to me of offering Alex a job in my cabinet team.

I have done that for two reasons. It would be presumptious of me to name my cabinet team before I have been elected.

Also I have been asked if I would be giving jobs to Alex Salmond, Alex Neil, Michael Russel, Nicola Sturgeon, Fiona Hislop.

It would be wrong to single out individuals What is important is my commitment is absolute to put forward an inclusive team that reflects all strands of opinion in the SNP.

BRIAN: Alex Neil, isn't there a fundamental division of strategy, between the gradualists and fundamentalists?

ALEX: I wouldn't put it in those simplistic terms. There are differences, John believes we should go into the next election campaigning for a mandate for a referendum, I think we should stick to the traditional policy of campaigning for a mandate to negotiate independence at the end of which we have a referendum.

BRIAN: Is there a way of reconciling the two positions, you could have John on your side?

ALEX: I have made that clear. John merits the position, number two, it's a mark of statemanship to take measures like that to stabilise the party during the leadership contest.

The SNP will resolve these matters democratically. They will decide a week on Saturday whether John or I lead the SNP. If I lead it, I'll ask the party to revisit this strategy on a referendum in conference, where everybody has the chance to put their point of view.

I believe that the new strategy as defined by John and Alex is faulty.

BRIAN: In short terms you can all be buddies afterwards?

ALEX: We've been running for seven weeks in this context and there's been no blood spillt.

JOHN: It's more important than that Brian, we've got a duty to do it and we've got a party that that's in a strong position, we've established a second place in Scottish politics, aspiring for first.

It's essential once the debate is concluded, then we move on as a united team.

JOHN: Any candidate who starts to spill blood in public would lose the election.

Regional funding:

BRIAN: We are going to come to that I have a pile of questions, some technical. From Archie Flockhart, saying, in summary, should there be more money for the north-east of Scotland, perhaps at the expense of the central belt.

He says MSPs from the SNP in that area are trying to argue that locally.

JOHN: What's important is we fund public services appropriately to meet the needs of people in Scotland. We've got to ensure we have strong public services in every part of Scotland.

I represent a part of Scotland where the health services has been told it's got to cut the money being spent on it. What I would far rather hear said is the areas of Scotland not getting enough resources should get more. So we get better and stronger public services in every part.

BRIAN: Does that mean more for the north east and less for the central belt?

JOHN: These judgments are going through based on need. I'm not arguing this campaign for a distribution of regional resources in that fashion.

ALEX: There needs to be, across Scotland, a substantial increase in the amount of investment available. If we had our share of the Brown war chest, of the oil and mobile phone money, then we're talking about a substantial overall increase in the level of investment.

People think the north-east is oil rich and doesn't need investment. It should get its fair share. One of the priorities in transport is the northern orbital route round Aberdeen.

Now the other thing about the north-east is we've got to start planning for the time, 20 or 30 years away, when there won't be oil off the north coast of Scotland.

We've got to look at diversifying the north east's economy and that requires resources.

Quangos:

BRIAN: Paul Leslie e-mails in to say he thinks quangos are spending vast sums of tax payers' money and are unaccountable. Would you cut their power and if so how?

JOHN: Take the SQA example, these organisations have to be brought closer towards government. We have the ridiculous situation where the education minister told us he has no power to give instructions to a public body that administer public and spends its money.

BRIAN: You can't have the minister setting exams and pass rates?

JOHN: No but I'm arguing for somebody to be accountable and responsible. We've got a government here that promised a bonfire of the quangos and the number of quangos have gone up.

BRIAN: What would you do about health boards and trusts?

JOHN: I don't understand why we've got health boards and health trusts. having practical experience of working with both these organisations, I don't know what either of them does that the other doesn't do. There's duplication.

BRIAN: Which would you scrap?

JOHN: I'd probably look at the trust and build a structure around about an area larger than the health boards, because the current health boards are too small and don't allow for the appropriate strategic view to be taken.

There's far too much congestion and bureaucracy. We've got to look at all the issues associated with these changes.

ALEX: It's ridiculous in modern society that quangos are responsible for nearly as much spend as elected local authorities.

There are some things have to be done by a quango, where it's involved in a commercial operation, civil servants aren't good at running commercial operations.

I have a private members bill called the public appointments bill. That would give the parliament power to vet and veto public appointments to these quangos.

It's a case of getting rid of them as quangos where we can, but the quangos left should be held accountable to the parliament.

BRIAN: What would you do about Scottish Enterprise and the enterprise agencies?

ALEX: Scottish Enterprise I would keep, because it's involved in commercial activity and you would need trade union expertise.

You don't get that in the civil service to the same extent. Scottish Enterprise I would make it more accountable, but it does need to be a separate body.

JOHN: The committee I chair in parliament suggests major changes in making Scottish Enterprise more accountable, the local enterprise companies more accoutable and hammering into the bureaucracy.

They're supposed to be lean, fit and commercial in their outlook. They're bogged down in bureaucracy and need to be tackled.

Warrant sales:

BRIAN: Warrant sales. A question from Frederick Arthurson directed at you Alex Neil, because he reminds us you're a sponsor of Tommy Sheridan's bill to abolish warrant sales and poindings.

Do you believe, individuals and companies, should pay their debts? If so, how do you enforce that?

ALEX: Of course they do, but the point about warrant sales is it isn't a not good way of recovering debt, less than 20% of the debt is actually recovered.

It often costs more for sheriff officers to come in and destroy people's lives than to recover the debt.

BRIAN: What do you use instead?

ALEX: There is arrestment of bank accounts, wages, sequestrations, there's a range of measures people can use to get their money back.

There's general agreement in the SNP and the parliament, because we got the first reading through, that poindings and warrant sales are unacceptable in a modern society.

BRIAN: Our correspondent says every country in western Europe and North America and Australia follows this system of debt enforcement?

JOHN: We've got to decide what we want to have in Scotland. There are a range of measures to make this process a more acceptable process.

I don't think people in our society are comfortable this is an acceptable way of debt recovery.

IR35:

BRIAN: A technical question on the IR35, a form of taxation affecting people in hi-tech and electronics industries. Three people saying this is an iniquituous tax and it should be abolished what would be your view on that?

ALEX: I know people who've been badly affected by this. The people who it affects are people subcontracted to a multinational in Scotland, say software engineers and programmers.

It's imposing a level of taxation on these people which discourages them from staying and working in Scotland.

BRIAN: Would you scrap it?

ALEX: I would reform the tax system, you can't scrap it, they have to pay their share, but it needs reformed.

JOHN: IR35 was introduced in a shabby fashion by the Labour Government. It came in by the back door to the Welfare Reform Bill.

It shouldn't have been added on to without adequate consultation. It doesn't take account of the fact many of these contractors. They'll have good times and bad times, they've no protection and support in the bad times I agree it's an iniquituous tax.

Northern Ireland:

BRIAN: Three brief questions, Andy Monahan from South Africa. Following independence, what would the candidates' policy be regarding a Scottish military presence in Northern Ireland?

ALEX: The issue of Northern Ireland is an issue for the UK. I believe it would be an issue for the remainder of the United Kingdom. It's about the relationship between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Westminster.

BRIAN: You wouldn't see a role for Scottish troops in Northern Ireland?

ALEX: The only potential role I would see would be if the UN got involved and we got involved as part of the UN.

BRIAN: Do you think the UK Government should withdraw from Northern Ireland? Do you believe in a united Ireland?

ALEX: Effectively they're in a process of withdrawal. As far as a united Ireland is concerned that's a matter for Irish people. I'm not going to tell the Irish people what they should do.

JOHN: One of the positive developments of the debate in the Irish situation has been the wide acceptance now that changes in Ireland can only be based on consent. That allows for the process to become a democratic debate rather than a military confrontation.

From that point of view there's some optimism at the situation in Northern Ireland. It is a matter that would be, in a post independence situation, a matter which would relate to the government in London and the rest of the UK and it obviously if there's something positive and constructive and helpful that a Scottish Government could do it would be wise to do that.

Equality:

BRIAN: A question form Keith Cowan. Would you find policies of supporting issues such as equality of gay people difficult to reconcile attempts to gain popularity with the Scottish press and the Scottish electorate?

ALEX: The SNP has always had a policy of a bill of rights and written constitution and that would build in to the constitution of an independent Scotland, the rights of minority groups.

That's consistent with everything we have said and done as a party and I am relaxed about that.

JOHN: Any modern society has got a written constitution, it sets out where people stand within that society. We've got to ensure it's based on principles of equality of treatment for all citizens regardless of where they have come from who they are, what their sexuality is to create a cohesive society.

Land:

BRIAN: John Nolan from the USA, what would be the candidate's plans to bring about a more equal distribution of property land ownership?

ALEX: The SNP had a commission on land use and land ownership which reported two years ago and made a series of radical recommendations.

The executive has been timid in terms of the implementation of the land reform that they've proposed. We'd go further and have a fairer distribution of land based on the need to ensure the soil of Scotland was used for the benefit of the Scottish people.

BRIAN: Would you take land into public ownership?

ALEX: There is some land you would take obviously.

BRIAN: What level of compensation?

ALEX: It would be the commercial rate of compensation.

JOHN: The important part of this debate is about land use. That's where government can be most effective in trying to ensure land is used properly in the interests of the wider community in Scotland.

What worries me about the current debate and legislative proposals is there's not much coming out that's going to effect land use.

At the end there might be a compulsory ownership move from the executive. It's important we tackle bad practice in land management and ensure there is statutory force behind making sure that the use and management of land is in the wider public.

ALEX: This isn't new, Brian. The Highlands and Islands Development Board that was set up in 1965 had the power to compulsorily acquire land that wasn't being used for the benefits of people.

BRIAN: It sounds as if you're more in favour of remedying the defects among the current landlords than replacing the landlords, which is what John Nolan is after.

JOHN: I don't support compulsory land nationalisation. There's an immediate problem about certain aspects of land use in substantial parts of Scotland.

We've got to tackle that vigorously and deliver a real difference to the people affected by that.

Tourism:

BRIAN: Alastair Cameron says in a national assembly meeting in 1997, Alex Neil brushed him aside, over the subject of tourism being essential for the well being of the Scottish economy. Did you snub Alistair Cameron?

ALEX: Not to the best of my knowledge. I deliberately, as the presiding officer of the National Assembly, had tourism debated in detail. It is extremely important to have a national tourism strategy across Scotland.

JOHN: Tourism is a fundamental industry to the Scottish economy. We have a lack of ambition about our tourism sector, we're not marketing it nearly well enough overseas, because all our marketing is done through the UK.

If we have the fuel prices we've got and value of sterling it's intensely damaging to attracting tourist from overseas to come to Scotland.

We're perceived to be one of the most expensive locations to come to in Europe.

Monarchy:

BRIAN: Let's move to the core of the argument. The future strategy your party would take, regarding the way Scotland is governed, regarding independence, the existing parliament.

Stephen Fife writes in to say what place is there for the monarchy in today's or tomorrow's Scotland? Are you a monarchist?

ALEX: I wouldn't describe myself as a monarchist.

BRIAN: Are you a Republican?

ALEX: I don't think this is a big issue.

BRIAN: People always say that when trying to avoid the question.

ALEX: We were asked earlier, how would I vote on a referendum on the monarchy which we're committed to hold when we become independant. The chances are I would vote for an elected president, but it's not something I would go to the barricades on.

My priority is to get independence.

BRIAN: Would there be a monarchy in an independent Scotland?

ALEX: The SNP current policy is there would be a restricted monarchy. But there would be a referendum.

I think most people in a modern society would be more inclined to have some kind of elected president, not the Australian proposals where parliamentarians pick the president. I would only be in favour of a presidential system if that person had limited powers, and had to be elected.

BRIAN: Who might be the president at the moment, Winnie Ewing, Sean Connery?

ALEX: I wouldn't like to speculate on that. You would make a good president, yourself, Brian!

BRIAN: That's no way whatsover to gain influence.

JOHN: The SNP's got a clear position, we believe the monarchy has to change in an independent Scotland. There has to be a limited constitutional monachy.

We've brought forward proposals while the monarchy's not present in Scotland the duties of the monarch should be carried out by the speaker of an independent Scottish Parliament.

BRIAN: If it came to it, how you would vote in this referendum?

JOHN: If that was the choice, I would vote for that position, my party's position.

BRIAN: To retain the monarchy?

JOHN: To retain a limited constitutional monarchy, but with the duties carried out by an elected speaker of the Scottish Parliament. I support the idea of putting this to the public.

BRIAN: We know Alex Neil would be agin the monarchy and John Swinney broadly in favour. So it's not priority.

ALEX: It's not priority.

Devolution:

BRIAN: A question from Malcom McCandless. Do you think that devolution is a failure?

ALEX: The parliament so far in its first year has failed to live up to the expectations of the Scottish people. It's done that primarily because of the lack of powers in the parliament I want to transform it from being a devolved parliament into an independent parliament.

But I would like parliament to be given real power, financial independence to control taxation and public expenditure.

BRIAN: How do you bring that about? It is a question many people are asking, how do you you propose achieve independence to build up the powers?

ALEX: There are two things we've got to do as part of the drive towards independence. We've got to recognise the parliament at the moment has minimal powers, we've got to use those to the maximum.

The abolition of poinding and warrant sales bill was a good example. we need more examples, land reform, we could have more radical proposals.

Secondly you've got to build up support throughout Scotland for the transfer of real power to the Scottish Parliament and put that to the test at the election next year.

It would be difficult for the unionist parties to explain to the Scottish people why the Scottish Parliament doesn't have control over pensions, many aspects of transport, control over the oil revenue,control over apects of public finance, public expenditure.

BRIAN: You believe the current parliament is hobbled, it is a bit of a unionist con trick?

ALEX: Part of the unionist thinking in setting it up was that. The SNP must ensure it doesn't fall into that trap.

One way of doing that is continually explaining to people the difference between devolution and independence, which means explaining to people what's possible with independence that isn't possible with devolution.

JOHN: What's important is that the Scottish Parliament is there. It is an admission of failure by the unionists in the UK.

The fact it's been created is an admission that the United Kingdom hasn't worked.

From the SNP's point of view we've got to ensure that parliament becomes an independent parliament as quickly as possible.

We've got to do that by maximising the electoral pressure by strengthening that parliament and making it an independent parliament.

BRIAN: How do you define independence, in these days of an interdependent Europe and a global world?

JOHN: The core of the definition of independence remains, strangely in a changing world, very much the same. It's about the people of Scotland being the sovereign people that decide how they are to be governed.

If those people are living in Scotland at the time of independence decide that they want their parliament to co-operate with the European Union on certain areas of policy, that's them exercising their sovereignty and their judgement.

But the core thing that it always comes back to is the fact that the public in Scotland will have the ability to decide their own future in a way they currently don't have.

BRIAN: Do you think the present parliament should be seen, within its own limits, as having been successful and something to be built on? Or should it be seen as a failure that requires to be replaced?

JOHN: I'm proud of the fact that the Scottish Parliament has been established. It's a platform for the SNP's further ambitions to create an independent Scottish Parliament.

I'm not misty-eyed enough to say that everything the Scottish Parliament's done in the last 18 months has been wonderful, there have been a number of pretty stupid things done that have attracted bad publicity but there are some very good things that have been done.

The key thing and this is a very important point in our forthcoming debates, we've got to avoid falling into the trap of the parliament accepting responsibility for the failure of executive policy and this executive has an awful lot of failure that surrounds it.

BRIAN: Alex Neil you believe you need to expose, as you would say the failings of devolution more bluntly, more harshly?

ALEX: Let's look at the two issues the parliament discussed yesterday, first of all on fuel duty and then on pensions. The parliament is powerless on both of them.

We have no control over fuel duty, we have no control over the level of pensions. I think the Scottish people expected it to be able to do something on these fronts as well as many other fronts, like the jobs front and other things as well.

The real issue is the lack of power in the parliament.

BRIAN: Still on this topic, one question from George McDonald New Jersey, USA. What do the candidates see as the largest single obstacle to Scottish independence?

JOHN: There's two large obstacles, let me talk about those: One is the political leadership of Scotland in the Labour Party. We have to beat Labour to be in a position to win political leadership.

The second is the need to build up self-confidence within Scotland to believe that our country, despite 300 years of being told that we're not up to the job, that we've got the resources and skills and strengths, as a people, to actually govern ourselves.

ALEX: I would actually agree with that. First of all the Labour Party has been deliberately lowering the horizons of the Scottish people, our job is to raise the horizons of the Scottish people to explain how Scotland would be far better off as an independent country.

As a candidate in Kilmarnock and Loudon, I've turned a 15,000 Labour majority into a 2,500 Labour majority and it's that kind of progress we need to make as a party right across Scotland.

BRIAN: You differ on strategy regarding independence, regarding the route to independence because you differ on the business of a referendum.

John Swinney, your position is that you would go into elections promising the people a referendum on independence, in the same way as the Labour Party promised a referendum on devolution.

JOHN: Yes. What I want the SNP to do is go into every election campaign in the future setting out the case for Scottish independence, putting out the persuasive and convincing arguments as to why Scotland would be a better country with independence.

I want the SNP to do that by concentrating on a number of the core social and economic concerns of the public and painting a picture of the type of Scotland that we want to achieve.

BRIAN: Alex Neil, you believe you don't need that further hurdle of the referendum that John Swinney is promising?

ALEX: The traditional view of the SNP is that we campaign for independence. If we win a majority of seats, then that's a mandate to negotiate and then we have a referendum on the settlement as proposed.

Now what the new position, as proposed by John, is that we campaign for a mandate for a referendum.

Supposing, for the sake of argument, that we won the election next year and that was on the basis of a mandate for a referendum, who would run the referendum?

It would have to be Donald Dewar or Tony Blair. Because the SNP wouldn't be in government we don't have the situation where we can run the referendum they would decide the question they would decide the date, they would decide the rules.

Then you go into the referendum campaign itself and somebody says to you: "What would happen to my pension? What would happen to the oil money? What would happen to Trident?"

The answer is you don't know because you haven't worked out the detail. Now, two years ago, we'd a referendum on devolution, but we'd a White Paper which spelt out in detail what it would mean. I don't believe the Scottish people would give us a blank cheque.

BRIAN: You would lose a referendum in other words?

ALEX: Yes.

JOHN: The same arguments apply to the whole strategy that Alex is putting forward. The difficult issues that Alex is talking about would be difficult issues to give an absolute answer to if you're asking somebody to vote SNP for a mandate for Scottish independence so the same tests apply in exactly the same context.

ALEX: No, you'd have the detail, John, because you'd do it after the settlement.

JOHN: But if you listen to what you've just said Alex, the same arguments would apply in trying to persuade somebody to vote SNP to give you a mandate to negotiate on independence.

BRIAN: Isn't that fair, Alex, aren't you essentially saying that independence is a product that can't be sold, it can't be marketed because people are too frightened of the impact on their pensions?

ALEX: No, not at all.

BRIAN: We have a correspondent here, Anne Baird, saying she would love to see an independent Scotland. "But the reality is", she writes, "my life revolves around children, elderly parents, employment, cost of living and so on."

ALEX: That's precisely the issue that independence has to be relevant to the bread and butter issues that people are worried about.

BRIAN: But that's going to apply at either an election or a referendum, isn't it?

ALEX: Of course it does but once you've won the election on an independence mandate why then go back and ask the same question again?

People expect you then to negotiate the independence and then got confirmation of that.

JOHN: I want to have the power of a democratic referendum mandate behind me when I go into negotiate with the United Kingdom Government to make sure that I've got a strong expression, clear expression of democratic will from the public in Scotland in answer to a simple question do they want independence to allow me to argue that convincingly, without any confusion, without any uncertainty.

BRIAN: What about Alex Neil's fears you could win the election but lose the referendum, happened in Quebec?

JOHN: I don't have a crystal ball in front of me, Brian, what I'm putting forward is an argument which I think gives the strongest democratic force to the campaign for Scottish independence and gives us the effective way of putting that message forward to the United Kingdom Government.

ALEX: My point is if you've won the general election you can go into those negotiations with the backing of the Scottish people, with the mandate. There's no need to go back and get a mandate for the second time.

JOHN: But you go in with an election where many issues have been discussed and the United Kingdom Government would have the ability to say, what's your mandate for independence, when you campaigned on a multiplicity of issues?

BRIAN: Two later points: Stewart Stevenson, who I'm sure all know, writes in to say that "Alex Neil is disagreeing with a party policy that was backed by a 70 to 30 vote" only this year ...

ALEX: No at all, in fact the remit...

BRIAN: National Council.

ALEX: Well, first of all, I believe this policy was bounced in the party in the way in which it was handled.

BRIAN: By your rival?

ALEX: Yes.

JOHN: Well, let me address those points the resolution which I took to National Council was approved by the party's national executive committee.

I don't know if Alex was present at the meeting but there certainly was a very good attendance at the meeting. The resolution was formed out of 11 meetings I had had around the country, discussing the issue with 600 party members and Alex wasn't present at any of those meetings.

ALEX: Yes, I was.

JOHN: None of those meetings. Now, the important thing is that when the decision went to national council, in March of this year, the party had five choices, in front of it, about different policy positions and out of those policy positions they chose the policy position that I'd put forward, they chose it by 70%, to 30% and it was a convincing support for the policy.

Coalition:

BRIAN: Another question Kenny Mizzi writing from England, although he says he is Scots himself. He says, broadly summarising that, the SNP's going to need friends even to get to that sort of referendum table, because you're going to need a coalition under the voting system in a Scottish Parliament and he believes, potentially, in independence In which case who would your coalition partners be?

ALEX: There are now three independence parties in the Scottish Parliament. Ourselves, who are obviously the biggest independence party and there's another two, the Greens and the SSP.

The kind of coalition I would try to put together in Scotland, it wouldn't necessarily be a coalition in the sense of all being in government but certainly an alliance would be an independence alliance.

BRIAN: Do you believe that's possible John Swinney?

JOHN: It may well be possible.

BRIAN: The voting system is deliberately stacked against it?

JOHN: Well, I hear all these things. You've got to make the voting system work for you. You've got to make sure you've got the strongest possible political campaign, the highest ambitions, the strongest ability to set out the case for independence and make sure you get your message across and win the argument. Your talk of coalitions to me is predicated on electoral failure, it's predicated on you not actually getting over the winning margin.

I've no intention of leading the SNP anywhere other than over the winning margin.

BRIAN: Alex Neil?

ALEX: The other thing about this is that we're talking about either a Westminster election or a Holyrood election. Because of the electoral system, of course under PR it is more difficult to get an overall majority.

I think if we mobilise the people of Scotland, excite the people of Scotland we can do that. That's why I think the next leader of the SNP has to have two essential qualities.

One, to be able to appeal to Labour voters, as I've shown that I can do, and secondly, to be able to appeal to the heart and the head.

It's not just enough to be able to put the logical arguments, we have to do that, but we've also got to inspire and excite the Scottish people so they'll vote for independence and vote for the SNP.

BRIAN: Briefly, from each of you a final question and it comes from me.

When do you think independence will come about?

JOHN: Independence will come about as quickly as we can persuade the people of Scotland to do it. I want to see it very very early in the 21st century so we can make this Scotland's century of independence.

BRIAN: Alex Neil?

ALEX: It'll only come about when a majority of the Scottish people are prepared to vote for it. That's why I'm standing for the leadership of the SNP because I believe that the positions that I'm putting forward will bring it about sooner rather than later.

BRIAN: Thanks to both. We'll learn who'll be the winner when the members of the SNP cast they're votes at the annual conference in Inverness.

The two contenders, of course, will be there, twisting arms and searching for votes and I'll be there throughtout the conference for the BBC. Until then, goodbye.

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18 Sep 00 | Scotland
SNP hopefuls clash on independence
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