THE SNP may next year have to choose between a referendum on independence and continuing in power after the Liberal Democrats hardened their position on a vote on separation.
• Tavish Scott: opposes SNP policy
Tavish Scott, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, declared an independence referendum was "not an issue" for his party as it produced an internal paper critical of Alex Salmond's flagship policy.
Previously, the Lib Dems had an "open-minded" view of the referendum. But its leaders were aware some members wanted to back the option, possibly as a precursor to a post-election deal that might create an SNP-Lib Dem coalition after the Holyrood elections next May.
Now former Lib Dem minister Ross Finnie has prepared a paper for Scott on the referendum issue. Scott would not reveal the details, but added that, having read it, he could not see any way his party would back an independence plebiscite.
"I just don't think it's going to happen," he said, adding that it was "not an issue" for his party any more and the country had "moved on".
But Scott said he could not be categorical about it because the final decision would be taken by the Scottish Lib Dem conference next year.
He continued: "No-one has raised it with me. We have had a policy manifesto roadshow over the summer involving regional meetings the length and breadth of Scotland and I can say without fear or favour, it has not been raised once. It is not an issue for party members."
Scott said he now believed his party shares his strong opposition to the idea. "The party took a different, a wider view of this than me in the past but the modern party can't give two hoots about it," he said, again adding: "The country has moved on it."
The news that Scott now sees the referendum issue as "dead and buried" within his party will disappoint some in the SNP who were hoping a future coalition could deliver on their keystone pledge.
Scott's decision to effectively rule it out suggests there is almost no chance of pursuing this strategy. The Nationalists made a referendum on independence a precondition of any coalition deal in 2007 and they are unlikely to shift from that position in 2011. As a result, the only logical powerbroking deal after next May's election looks like being between Labour and the Lib Dems.
Scott also admitted concerns over the impact of being in coalition with the Tories at Westminster on the Scottish party. He said: "I have my concerns but I don't intuitively panic about it. We are a devolved party; that means we will take different positions. We are not the Tory party: not south of the Border, not north of the Border and, therefore, we will take Liberal Democrat positions on the issues that matter to us."