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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
John Swinney quizzed

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The new leader of the SNP John Swinney answered your questions in this his first Westminster election as leader of his party - and the first since the creation of the Scottish parliament.

What difference has the Scottish Parliament made to the party -and how relevant is this Westminster election to SNP supporters?

Below is a transcript of the interview carried out by BBC Scotland's political editor.

Brian Taylor

Hello and welcome to Edinburgh, and our continuing series of interviews with the party leaders. Joining me here today is John Swinney, the leader of the Scottish National Party, in the slightly unusual position in that he's leading the fight in a campaign where he's not himself a candidate for Westminster. How does that play?

John Swinney

Well, it's very straightforward, Brian. I'm the leader of the SNP, leading our campaigns in all parliaments, whether it's the Scottish parliament, the European parliament or the Westminster parliament. I've chosen the parliament I'm going to stand for and what we've done in this election is put forward 72 first class candidates, one of which of course is my predecessor Alex Salmond, who gives a tremendous anchor to a team of candidates for the forthcoming Westminster election where we are arguing that we need strong SNP voices at Westminster to stand for Scotland.

Brian Taylor

OK, let's move on to the e-mails. The first one we've got here is from Alan Davis in Germany, talking about the relationship between Scotland and the European Union. Now within the current devolved structure, how do you see that developing, he asks, in the period ahead?

John Swinney

Well obviously we encourage the Scottish executive and the Scottish parliament to have as much direct contact within the European Union. The problem that we're finding is that when important decisions are taken by the Council of Ministers, it's United Kingdom ministers who are in attendance taking the decisions and representing a UK position.

Brian Taylor

The argument, the counter argument to that is that Scotland punches above her weight because we have the clout of the British votes in the Council of Ministers and the Commission.

John Swinney

Well, if you look at recent events, we've had a debate in Scotland about the future of the fishing industry and we've had United Kingdom ministers negotiating a dreadful deal, from the perspective of Scotland. And you've had Denmark negotiating a deal for the Danish fishing industry that's given that fishing industry access to territorial waters that Scotland has been excluded from because of the failure of UK ministers. So I just don't accept this argument that the United Kingdom represents Scotland. Invariably, it fails to represent Scotland and what we need is a direct Scottish voice in all of these important forums of decision-making in Europe arguing for the Scottish interest.

Brian Taylor

Can we clarify your perspective on the single European currency on the euro. You are in favour of membership, and yet the phrasing in your manifesto sounded cool, to me. It talked about the hurdles to be overcome, rather than the glories to be attained.

John Swinney

Well, Scotland is an exporting and a manufacturing nation, so I can see commercial and trading advantages for our businesses of Scotland being in a single currency that would give access to a pattern of lower interest rates which would make them more competitive.

Brian Taylor

In a referendum would you campaign for membership?

John Swinney

Well, the criteria for membership for me are very clear. We have to go in at an acceptable exchange rate and we have to have the support of a referendum behind that decision. Now providing we are in the circumstances where the exchange rate is correct, and we lock in Scotland's position in the single currency at an acceptable exchange rate, then I'd be in favour of a single currency and would argue for that.

Brian Taylor

That's an identical position to Tony Blair's, and yet you criticise him for his stance on the euro.

John Swinney

What I criticise Tony Blair for is putting up, I think, a whole series of, sort of false tests just to put more fog into the debate. The debate to me is about whether or not we can enter the single currency at the, an acceptable exchange rate and to give commercial and trading opportunities to the companies that exist within Scotland and who would benefit from a lower interest rate regime. Now what the Labour government is doing is mystifying the debate with these endless tests, which are not scientific tests or economic tests, they're just issues of fog and the key thing in all of this debate is, and what the SNP will argue for is we must have direct Scottish representation in all of those negotiations to protect the Scottish interests.

Brian Taylor

Well, we can talk about this for the rest of the programme. Let's move on to the topic of defence. We have lots of e-mails to get through. Steve McCall from my own native city of Dundee is asking about your views on the proposed missile defence system. He describes it here as the son of Star Wars, that George Bush is proposing.

John Swinney

Well I don't support a national defence system. I don't think it will there's any evidence that it will provide a proven benefit in terms of withstanding some of the rogue attacks that might come from some hostile states, you know, who are attacking the United States. But I think the other issue is this, it changes the balance of the, the global balance between the United States and other countries and for that reason I think it's destabilising.

Brian Taylor

Very briefly, on the question, on the wider of question of defence, you're in favour of Scotland withdrawing from NATO and yet again, your manifesto seems to be talking about co-operating with NATO. You seem almost to be embarrassed about your own policy.

John Swinney

Not at all. What I want for Scotland, is for us to be involved in conventional defence that meets the needs and the requirements of Scotland. And that we co-operate with other countries on conventional defence -

Brian Taylor

So Trident?

John Swinney

We have a point of principle. And one of my points of principle is that I believe fundamentally that Scotland should not be associated with nuclear weapons. I don't think we should have nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, and we shouldn't be part of military alliances that involve nuclear weapons as part of a command structure. And that's the issue that we have with NATO, but we want to have defence co-operation between Scotland and other countries and some NATO countries on conventional weaponry.

Brian Taylor

OK, next a very big issue that's emerged during this election campaign, especially in Scotland, the subject of spending. Whether Scotland gets its fair share of expenditure, or too much. We have Andrew from Bolton, as he says, in England, he adds, says that Scotland is getting about 25 per cent per head more public spending than England, mostly paid for, he says, by English taxes, regardless of the oil money.

John Swinney

Well, Scotland is contributing more to the United Kingdom than we are receiving back in

Brian Taylor

That's not what the official figures say, the revenue figures produced by the Scottish executive and before that the Scottish Office, always show a deficit.

John Swinney

Well, the problem is that the Labour party the week before last launched an assault on the SNP which involved conceding the point that Scotland pays more to the United Kingdom than we receive in return -

Brian Taylor

They deny that, they absolutely deny that, absolutely deny that.

John Swinney

Well, that's what the figures say. I've read the document and that's what the figures say. If they can't get their research correct, that's up to them. But Scotland pays more to the United Kingdom than we receive in return and what we're finding with Scottish public spending is that our share of UK public spending is falling, it fell under the Conservatives, it's continued to fall under New Labour. And John Prescott quite clearly has signalled in this election campaign that once the election is out of the way, he and some of his cabinet colleagues will be coming back to further erode Scotland's share of UK public spending, and we need strong SNP voices to protect us against that.

Brian Taylor

But only this morning Brian Ashcroft, from the highly respected Institute, is saying perhaps for a couple of years, with oil at a very, very high, perhaps there might be a fiscal balance in Scotland's favour. But he says oil is unreliable as a way to base an economy and over the longer term the official figures show Scotland in the red.

John Swinney

But if you look at the historical analysis, Brian, over the last 25 years we were told that Scotland was subsidised and the last government came out before the last election and said that over most of the 1980s and 1990s Scotland had paid more to the UK than we received in return. So we've been right about the past, I think we've every confidence to be right about the future. But the issue about, you know, our economic policies are not dependent on oil. Our economic policies are about making sure we use the surplus from oil, we'll lock it into what we've called a fund for future generations that's like a windfall. We keep that capital safe and secure and we draw down an investment income from that, that we invest into our public services. And that's how we're strengthening and making, our public services, and making our wealth work for everyone that lives in Scotland.

Brian Taylor

Very briefly, if you would, you agree with Andy Monahan who writes in from Cape Town, saying that the SNP will be punting the issue of fiscal independence rather than the Barnet formula it currently depends on.

John Swinney

What we've argued for is that, the Barnet formula is not perfect for Scotland, but we certainly don't want to argue for something that's worse. And John Prescott wants us to have something worse. I'd much prefer the Scottish parliament to be taking all the decisions about the taxes raised in Scotland and spent in Scotland. I think that's the responsible way for us to go forward.

Brian Taylor

We'll come to your big issue, obviously, which is Scottish independence, the question of the constitutional relationship with the UK shortly, but three or four detailed policy questions, briefly if you would, pensions. Bob Newcombe writes from Bristol asking for your views on the equalisation of pension entitlements between men at 65 and women at 60. He describes the Westminster system as sexist. Are you planning on changing it?

John Swinney

Well the government's already beginning to equalise the retirement age for men and women and what we're interested in doing is to be a part of that debate and encouraging that debate. I think the key issue on pensions is that we can't have a situation where pensioners get a 75p increase in their basic state pension ever again and we're committed to linking pensions with earnings so that our pensioners share in the growth of the national income of our country.

Brian Taylor

OK, very briefly again, student finance. Natalie Monahan from Lanarkshire asks about your, basically, what your policy is on student funding?

John Swinney

Well, we support the Scottish traditional aspiration of universal access to free higher education and that's been undermined by the Scottish executive. They've replaced up front tuition fees with back-end tuition fees. I want to have free access to higher education and I want students to be given access to decent and creditable maintenance grants to allow people from lower income households to genuinely get access to higher education.

Brian Taylor

Again, forgive me for rushing on, but a lot to get in. Asylum. Steven Portches from Glasgow asks, in what way would the SNP's policy differ from those advanced by the other parties on asylum seekers?

John Swinney

Well, I think on asylum seekers, we've got to treat those who come into our country from situations of terror very sensitively, and deal with applications for asylum seekers as quickly as is possible. The Government's been dilatory in dealing with applications in the past -

Brian Taylor

Would you curb the number. Would you check more closely on their entitlement of access?

John Swinney

Well, the one specific change I would make is the voucher system that's in place, I think is discourteous and insensitive to people and I think that has to be replaced. The government's already reviewing that and I encourage them to do that much quicker. In terms of numbers, you know, there's about 600 asylum seekers who come into Scotland in any given year. And I think we've got to have this in its proper context. People's applications have got to be genuinely assessed to make sure that they've come here on the right basis. And that should be done swiftly.

Brian Taylor

Let's turn, Mr Swinney, finally to the substantial question of Scotland, Scotland' place. Your policy as the SNP, your founding reason, is to gain independence for Scotland, to break the union of 1707. Now, in those circumstances, Brian Haydens from Carshalton in Surrey, writes in, he says his mother is Scottish, his father is English, both live in Scotland, would they both be eligible for Scottish citizenship under your plans?

John Swinney

People who are living in Scotland at the time that Scotland becomes independent, people who are, were born in Scotland, and people who have had a parent who was born in Scotland would automatically be entitled to Scottish citizenship under our plans. And obviously anybody in addition to that would be free to apply for Scottish citizenship because we have a very inclusive approach to the issue of citizenship. Our population in Scotland is falling and if we encourage people, and that's part of our thinking, we encourage people to come to live in Scotland and contribute to the generation of wealth within Scotland, then that's a great -

Brian Taylor

A heartfelt plea next from Steven Williams of Halesowen. He says that the countries that formed the UK were poorer before the union, it was prosperity brought by the union that he's advancing. And he says, the question I must ask most of all is do you really want to see the end of the United Kingdom and if so, why?

John Swinney

Well, what I want is for all the decisions, at all levels of policy, to be taken by the people of Scotland. I think it's a very basic democratic instinct, to give responsibility to the people that live in this country.

Brian Taylor

What's wrong with the union?

John Swinney

Well, I'll tell you what's wrong with the union. A third of Scotland's children were born in poverty and live in poverty, a quarter of our pensioners were born in poverty and live in poverty. This isn't a paradise that we're living in.

Brian Taylor

That could be said, surely, about the inner city of Manchester, the inner city of Liverpool, as well, I mean, you're saying, to hell with them, you'll sort out Scotland.

John Swinney

This is the community that I live in. And I want to put the choice to the people of Scotland, do they want to live in a country that attaches a greater priority to ending pensioner poverty and child poverty and making sure that we can use the formidable wealth of Scotland to the benefit of everyone that lives here. We live in a rich country, Brian, but we've not a rich society. That's what we've got to solve.

Brian Taylor

Peter Shyler from London writes in to say, surely you're not claiming to be downtrodden and disadvantaged in comparison to the rest of the country? It sounds as if you are.

John Swinney

Well, what I've got, I've got great ambitions and aspirations for Scotland. I want to make this a wealthy society as well as a wealthy country. I want to put in place first class public services that will make our streets safer for people, that will give us lower class sizes for our primary pupils, that will give us more nurses in our hospitals and end inequality of health treatment. These are some of the aspirations I have to build a better Scotland and we can do that by voting SNP in this election.

Brian Taylor

Aspirations, Mr Swinney, but you can't do it by voting SNP in this election because you're only standing in 72 seats out of 650-odd in the Westminster election. And Jim Tosh from Sydney in Australia writes in that would you ally with parties in the Scottish parliament to bring about independence? Because you would need buddies for this wouldn't you? Because you can't get a majority now in the Scottish parliament because of the voting system.

John Swinney

Well the key thing about this Westminster election is that there are vital issues still to reserved to Westminster that have an effect on Scotland and our parliament. Not least of which the issue of public spending for our services, that we've talked about already. I want to make sure that after this election we've got strong SNP voices at Westminster arguing to complete the powers of the Scottish parliament and deliver independence, and also to protect and promote the Scottish interest. That's what this election is going to be about.

Brian Taylor

Who's going to be the prime minister, Mr Swinney? Tony Blair?

John Swinney

That will be decided by the United Kingdom electorate. But what's important, Brian, is that election contest in the United Kingdom, in my view, it's dead as a contest south of the border, but here in Scotland we have a vibrant contest, a two-horse race between the SNP and the Labour party and I'm determined to make sure the SNP makes significant electoral progress in this contest.

Brian Taylor

A couple of e-mails that we have, finally a question, I'm sure, that's beginning to grow south of the border. English independence. Do you think it's time, says Andy Hume from London, for the English to have their own parliament?

John Swinney

Well I think that's a matter for the people of England and I'm not going to sit here in a television studio in Edinburgh and dictate to the people of England. As an SNP member of parliament for the last four years I've abstained from votes in English matters and I think that's the right thing to do because, you know, it's -

Brian Taylor

That's not workable, it's not workable in the longer term because you could have a prime minister who is UK and a prime minister for England.

John Swinney

Well, you see, the workable solution in the long term is for Scotland to be an independent country and for us to take all of the decisions that relate to Scotland and for the people of England to decide how best to undertake their government and I think that's a decision the people of England are well equipped to take.

Brian Taylor

David Mason from Essex says that there is discrimination against England under the present system and he wonders whether you would support a move to create, perhaps even within the present devolved, or quasi-federal system, an English parliament? Obviously in favour of independence. What about the present set up where Scotland's got it's own bit of autonomy?

John Swinney

The people of England respected the right of the people of Scotland to decide we wanted a devolved Scottish parliament and my party has supported the devolved Scottish parliament in the referendum that took place here. So I think it's up to the people of England to decide and have a debate about how their constitutional future should be structured. It's a debate which is a lively one. But the argument that we'll put forward is that the natural position for Scotland is to be an independent country. And that's what we'll argue for.

Brian Taylor

John Swinney, thank you very much for joining us and for answering the questions.

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