By Daniel Bases
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Alex Salmond wants to see an independent Scotland free of submarines laden with nuclear missiles, but he says he is open to hosting NATO bases without weapons of mass destruction.
As leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, the Scottish first minister announced last month that on September 18, 2014, Scots would have a chance to decide whether or not to break from the United Kingdom after more than 300 years.
A Scotland free of British Trident nuclear submarines has been a long-standing aim of the SNP.
In an interview with Reuters in New York on Thursday, Salmond said he would not get into a debate before the referendum about allowing foreign military bases on Scottish soil. But he did say it was the SNP's intention to be a NATO member.
"The choice in policy terms is to be a non-nuclear member of that organization," he said. "So then if we are talking about a non-nuclear base, then of course that would be something that would be possible in terms of the (NATO) treaty agreement."
In February, the British government led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron warned in a legal opinion that an independent Scotland would forfeit its membership in international bodies such as NATO and the European Union.
Salmond said an application to join the EU would be one of his first acts after a successful referendum. He predicted EU entry for an independent Scotland in 2016.
Salmond is in the United States to promote the independence cause and to drum up investment to bolster the economy of the 5.2 million strong Scottish nation. He will seek to promote a distinct foreign policy view when he visits Washington next week and meets with U.S. lawmakers.
Salmond said neither he nor Washington had broached the subject of a U.S. military base in Scotland, but the SNP had had discussions with U.S. representatives about NATO membership.
CAMERON AND TRIDENT
Cameron visited Scotland on Thursday and welcomed back the crew of a Trident submarine. He is at odds with some members of his own coalition government in saying that scaling back Britain's nuclear deterrent would be unwise given potential threats from Iran and North Korea.
Salmond argues that Scotland's annual contribution of 180 million pounds ($275 million) to help maintain the submarines would be better spent elsewhere.
"I accept that cleaning up contaminated land is part of the responsibilities of government, but the most important step in decontaminating nuclear materials in Scotland is not to renew a nuclear missile system for the next half century," he said.
Salmond and the SNP face a hard battle to secure independence. Opinion polls around the time the referendum date was set showed support for independence at 30 percent of the Scottish electorate while 50 percent favor the status quo.
Salmond hopes to boost support for the SNP cause by convincing Scots they would be better off with independence, not least by redirecting North Sea oil and gas revenues to their own Treasury.
According to the Scottish government, in the fiscal year ending in March 2012, Scotland accounted for 9.3 percent of UK public spending but 9.9 percent of UK tax revenue. Oil and gas aside, Scotland is pushing wind energy while building technology services in addition to tourism and Scotch Whisky industries.
On his first day of a week-long trip, Salmond signed deals with two U.S. businesses - Massachusetts-based life sciences firm Daktari and North Carolina-based business analytics software and services firm SAS - to expand operations in Scotland and add approximately 220 new jobs.
Salmond reiterated his challenge to debate Cameron on television about the merits of Scottish independence. He accused the prime minister of visiting Scotland to "scare" Scots about the impact of independence just as he was trying to promote its business and culture in the United States.
(Reporting By Daniel Bases; Editing by David Brunnstrom)