A very interesting interview with Il Tartanissimo in the Times today in which Salmond accepts, quite candidly, that independence isn't happening any time soon:
“The centre of gravity in Scottish politics currently is clearly not independence,” he admitted. “You must campaign for what is good for Scotland as well as campaigning for independence.”
A cynic - not that there are any of those around here - might argue that there's a contradiction in that second sentence but, in this instance, a cynic would be unfair on Eck. It's really quite rare to come across a politician being quite this candid about what is, after all, supposed to be his party's reason for being.
Nor did this alarming outbreak of common sense stop there. Salmond wants to renew the argument, correctly in my view, for fiscal autonomy, since, as he puts it:
“It is really important, in my view, to be able to say to people how we can change the circumstances and increase revenue as well as decreasing expenditure.
“It is my job to come up with some answers, along with others. If you jump up and down nihilistically saying ‘dreadful dreadful, dreadful, cuts, cuts, cuts’, then I would be failing in my duty to the people.”
This is good stuff. Interesting too, since it suggests to me that Salmond has caught the national mood a little more accurately than Scottish, or indeed UK, Labour has. The coalition is winning (just) the argument on cuts and Salmond appears, in this interview at least, to recognise that.
There's a political angle to this too. Next year's Holyrood elections are going to be tough for the SNP. Right now, in fact, I'd wager that Labour are likely to emerge as the largest party since, for the first time since devolution, they have the luxury of attacking someone else's record. SNP cuts will be Tory cuts and vice versa. Meanwhile, there's little obvious upside in Salmond attacking cuts in the block grant since, in the end, the details of cuts will be decided in Edinburgh, not London and so, fairly or not, it's the SNP's decisions that will be scrutinised.
Hence this more proactive approach. The case for fiscal autonomy has always been a strong one and, indeed, might be reinforced by the constraints of the current difficult circumstances. So Salmond is presenting himself as the statesman searching for solutions, rejecting the simplicities of kneejerk opposition (an irony indeed given his past excellence in exactly that role). He will surely argue that the cuts are the consequences of Labour's mismanagement of the public finances and that Labour are offering no solutions to problems they created themselves.
Like Cameron and Clegg at Westminster he will ask Labour "Well, what would you do?" and trust that Labour won't have any credible answers. The Prime Minister and the First Minister are, in this respect, allies of convenience facing a common enemy.
But, as John McTernan and Alf Young pointed out in an excellent discussion on Newsnight Scotland yesterday, there's more scope for savings in Scotland than in England since, as McTernan put it, "Scotland has been living in a bubble for the last ten years" in which the solution to everything has been more public spending and no boondoggle is too ridiculous to be handed out to a grateful middle-class.
Among the obvious things that could go: free university tuition (and four rather than three year degrees), free prescriptions, free care for the elderly and much, much, much more. Indeed, public spending in Scotia has been so extravagant that the government has actually run a modest surplus for the past four years as, in the end, ministers have struggled to find ways of spending all the extra cash.
That doesn't mean lopping 25% off the block grant will be painless but there's more flexibility for cuts in Scotland than England. Salmond, I suspect, knows this even as he also knows that the argument is, for the moment at least, about fiscal arrngements (sexy!) and not independence.