Ian Swanson: Nationalists take extra care choosing day to fit the bill

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THE pipes, the haggis, the stirring words from the national bard – what better setting than Burns Day for the opening of the next chapter in Scotland's proud history?

Alex Salmond had planned to use next Monday – 25 January – to launch the SNP's bill for a referendum on independence. But now the timetable has slipped and the First Minister and his colleagues will not sign off the bill until their weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday. It will be published, officials say, "shortly thereafter".

So why the delay? After all, Mr Salmond has had the big day pencilled into his diary for a long time.

In May 2008, he announced he was "looking at" 25 January 2010 as the date to launch the referendum legislation.

And he added: "If you're launching a referendum bill you should launch on a propitious day."

The government says its immediate priority is passing the budget for next year. But opposition politicians have claimed the delay is all about making sure the debate on independence is still a live issue during the UK general election campaign.

They say that as soon as the bill is published, the Scottish Government loses control of the process to the Scottish Parliament's business bureau, which could then decide to speed up the timetable for consideration of the bill and effectively kill it off in double quick time.

One senior source says: "If the SNP had published on Burns Day, the bureau could have decided there was no need for further consultation because we'd already had the National Conversation. It could have set up a committee to look at the bill and fixed a date in two weeks for it to report. Then it would have been debated and defeated."

Such a short-circuiting exercise could have seen the bill disposed of before the general election was announced.

Now the chances are that the Referendum Bill will still be a live proposal, provoking debate, as the country is plunged into the fast-flowing waters of an election campaign.

And that means independence will be kept in the public mind, not just in Scotland but across the UK. The bill is expected to spell out the wording of the question which the SNP wants to put to the Scottish people, almost certainly offering a "more powers" alternative alongside the independence option.

Whether that will be based on the proposals from the Calman Commission set up by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories or a more far-reaching extension of devolution is not yet clear.

The Nationalists had earmarked the other big day in Scotland's calendar – St Andrew's Day, 30 November – as referendum day. The date was even emblazoned on the picture of a saltire in the SNP's 2008 conference programme.

But sources close to the First Minister pointed out the date, if it is included in the bill, would be open to amendment as it goes through parliament. All this flexibility is intended to make the SNP seem very reasonable, doing all it can to accommodate the other parties. Nevertheless, the main opposition groups still seem set to combine to vote the bill down.

But however much they might wish it, that won't make the issue go away.

The SNP already knows the bill is unlikely to pass and is therefore ready to fight the 2011 Holyrood election telling voters the other parties are all determined to deny the people their say on Scotland's future. And if re-elected, they will try again for a referendum.

There is no doubt the SNP's victory in 2007 was more to do with people wanting a change of government than any public clamour for independence.

But the opposition parties' collaboration in setting up the Calman commission showed they believed the constitutional issue had to be addressed.

And the 2010 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, published at the end of last week, found widespread support for maximum devolution or "devo max".

A clear majority said they wanted Scotland to remain in the UK, but with Holyrood in control of the country's 18 billion welfare bill, with power over pensions and benefits, and also taxation levels.

Only defence, foreign affairs and monetary policy would remain UK responsibilities. That still falls short of independence. But it goes much further than the Calman proposals, which has to be good news for the SNP.

Mr Salmond and his colleagues know they are not yet in a position to win an independence referendum – but they are playing a long game.

That still leaves the matter of when finally to unveil the referendum bill.

Parliament sources say the convention is that once it is signed off by ministers, the presiding officer and his officials have three weeks to check it before publication – which would take them to mid or late February.

But can Mr Salmond find a "propitious day" for the big launch?

He could try 17 February, the day in 1972 when Westminster passed the bill for Britain to go into Europe; or 21 February, the 88th anniversary of Egypt's independence from Britain; or 25 February, the day in 1946 when the first bananas arrived in Britain after the war.

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