Salmond outlines referendum question

Thu, Jan 26, 2012, 00:00

A REFERENDUM on Scottish independence would put the future in the people’s hands and allow them to stand on their own two feet, first minister Alex Salmond said yesterday.

Mr Salmond, who presented a consultation paper to the Scottish parliament, insisted that he wanted to put a single question to voters on whether they agreed that Scotland “should be an independent country” in a referendum in 2014. However, once more he left open the possibility that a second question – offering greater self-government – could be added if there was support for it.

Mr Salmond is still going head-to-head with British prime minister David Cameron over the legal basis for for an independent referendum. Mr Cameron says Westminster’s approval is necessary under law before one can be held.

The first minister, who leads the majority Scottish National Party administration in Holyrood, offered to negotiate constructively on the need for Westminster legislation. “I want to find an agreement.”

However, he warned that he would go ahead with a referendum offering greater self-government if London attempted to influence “decisions that should be taken by Scots”, saying he was certain he had the legal power to do so.

Mr Salmond has offered the independent Electoral Commission the power to run the referendum, but he does not concede that it should have the final say on the wording of the question, or questions, being put to voters.

The issue will be relatively unimportant if just a single question is asked. However, the electoral commission’s role could be significant if voters are given a choice between independence and greater self-government – dubbed “devo-max” – because the SNP has argued up to now that independence would be the victor if it got 51 per cent of vote, even if devo-max was supported by a far higher number.

The electoral commission will be key in the upcoming talks between Mr Salmond and the British secretary of state for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Michael Moore, and Mr Cameron. Its powers were shown during last year’s UK-wide referendum on reform of the voting system when it rejected the first draft of the question put forward by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg because it was written in a biased fashion.

Labour has seized on Mr Salmond’s reluctance to offer the electoral commission full power.

The party’s Commons spokeswoman on Scotland, Margaret Curran, said, “[Mr Salmond’s] proposal to strip the electoral commission of its legal responsibility to examine the question is highly suspicious and simply not acceptable.

“It is completely wrong to agree to have a neutral referee but then stop it doing its most important job. Watering down the role of the watchdog is simply not democratic.”

Under the timetable put forward by Mr Salmond, legislation authorising the referendum would be brought before Holyrood in early 2013, approved by October, given royal assent by November that year and then put to voters in 2014.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont warned of the problems that would occur during the campaign if the SNP leader continued to imply that anyone who did not agree with independence was somehow less Scottish.

“We must recognise that we all love our country, whatever constitutional settlement we support. But the most important thing is that whichever side wins this referendum, it, and the process to it, is conducted in such a way that the day after it, all Scots can come together to fulfil our national duty to make Scotland all it can be,” she said.

Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones, reacting to the moves in Scotland, said they raised serious questions for the rest of the United Kingdom.

“It’s important to sit down and work out a process where the rest of the UK can work together in a union that’s right for the 21st century,” he said.