By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON, March 4 (Reuters) - Scottish leader Alex Salmond called on all Britons on Tuesday to back his campaign for an independent Scotland to help create a northern economic counterweight to stop London from sucking the life out of the rest of the country.
In his first speech in London this year, Salmond said life in the United Kingdom had become increasingly unbalanced with regional centres suffering as London dominated the economic landscape and rising numbers of people relying on food handouts.
Salmond is battling a concerted effort by London to prevent a “yes” vote at a Sept. 18 referendum by undermining his Scottish National Party’s central case that oil-producing Scotland could be a prosperous nation.
In an appeal to Britons, Salmond said there was a growing realisation that wealth and opportunities were too concentrated geographically and socially and an independent Scotland could help by building its economy and keeping strong ties in the UK.
“After Scottish independence, the growth of a strong economic power in the north of these islands would benefit everyone - our closest neighbours in the north of England more than anyone,” Salmond told a packed New Statesman event in a hall in Westminster, the heart of UK politics.
“There would be a ‘Northern Light’ to redress the influence of the ‘dark star’ - rebalancing the economic centre of gravity of these islands.”
The debate over independence has focused largely on the financial impact of Scotland ending a 307-year tie to England although both sides have started to make more emotional appeals as opinion polls show the trailing nationalists gaining ground.
An Ipsos-Mori poll this week showed 32 percent support for independence, 57 percent against and 11 percent undecided.
British Prime Minister David Cameron last month in a speech dubbed a “love-bombing” urged residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to lean on Scottish friends and family to stick with the UK as they were best and strongest together.
Salmond used his London platform to stress that Scotland, with 8 percent of the UK’s population and 9.5 percent of its GDP, could be a prosperous, independent country but it would still retain close ties with the rest of the United Kingdom.
He wants Scotland to keep the pound in a currency union with the rest of the UK, continue to have Queen Elizabeth as monarch, and retain its membership of the European Union.
“Scotland will not be a foreign country after independence, any more than Ireland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales could ever be foreign countries to Scotland,” said Salmond, sporting a tie with small motifs of Scotland’s white-and-blue Saltire flag.
“We share ties of family and friendship, trade and commerce, history and culture, which have never depended on a parliament here at Westminster, and will endure and flourish long after independence.”
But a row over Scotland using the pound has taken centre stage in the escalating debate, with the three main UK parties joining forces to rule out a currency union, saying if Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the pound.
Salmond has refused to outline a Plan B, accusing the UK government of bluffing, but this has led to some financial heavyweights such as Standard Life and Royal Bank of Scotland voicing concerns about uncertainties over the currency, regulation and tax in the event of independence.
By contrast, the heads of airlines British Airways and Ryanair say independence would be good for business as Scotland would cut air passenger tax.
Despite lagging in polls, Salmond said he believed a “yes” vote was possible, refusing to speculate otherwise and predicting Scots who did not usually vote would show up.
“This referendum is not about politicians ... the best people to make decisions about Scotland’s future are the people who live and work in Scotland,” Salmond said.