Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Tuesday, 14 August 2007 14:48 UK

What is the cost of conversation?

By Andrew Black
Political reporter
BBC Scotland news website

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond has called for an end to apocalyptic visions

The publication of the SNP government's white paper on Scotland's future gets one thinking - is Alex Salmond at all superstitious?

The launch venue - a lecture theatre at Edinburgh's Napier University - was the same one at which the first minister launched his party's ultimately successful Scottish election manifesto.

Incidentally, Mr Salmond used the same Aberdeen hotel to launch his successful bid to lead the SNP for a second time, after having previously appeared there to step down from the party's top job.

Just a thought.

Anyway, how much does it cost to have a conversation in Scotland these days?

Well, about 40,000 according to the Nationalists, who have launched their "national conversation" on Scotland's constitutional future - although the Tories say everyone is welcome to join their chat without the need for a white paper.

Green edges

The document, coming in at 40-odd pages, was launched amid recent chatter based around the SNP's first 100 days in power.

With a spring in his step and surrounded by Saltires aplenty, Mr Salmond took to the stage to state that the day was a moment of historical significance, while declaring that the days of "top down government" were over.

Debate in Scotland was now, he said, not about whether there should be change but what change there should be.

To that end, the first minister is open to persuasion on a wide range of options in the white paper "with green edges".

These range from more powers for the Scottish Parliament to independence itself - but he knows Scotland's minority government does not have the parliamentary backing for a referendum.

"Don't be fooled," said the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour, who claimed the national conversation was about one thing and one thing only - unwanted proposals to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

'Sniping negativity'

The opposition parties, now dubbed "the gang of three", joined forces to issue a strongly-worded attack on the eve of the white paper launch, branding it propaganda at public expense which would damage and divide Scotland.

This, they say, would be the real cost of the national conversation.

Seeking to deal with that criticism Mr Salmond said that the debate on Scotland's future had been characterised not by intelligent contribution but by "sniping negativity and visions of apocalyptic despair".

"That tone scarred that last election as it has scarred every election since devolution started," he said, firing off a salvo at Labour while calling for contributions - however passionate - to be based on fact and not smears and misinformation.

"What was different this time was that the negativity was rejected by the people," he added, making clear that "the conversation" was about much more than teasing Labour.

So the call has gone out to everyone in Scotland and beyond - not forgetting that independence would affect people living and working in the rest of Britain as well - to contribute their views.

This is a long-term project, with the SNP aiming to hold a referendum by 2010, and as Alex Salmond put it himself: "Rome wasn't built in a day. Not even 100 days."

SEE ALSO
SNP outlines independence plans
14 Aug 07 |  Scotland

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