A group of senior nationalists, including Alex Salmond, have launched a bold attempt to wrest control over the holding and timing of a second independence referendum from Westminster to Holyrood.
The former first minister was accused last night of agitating for another poll after it emerged that he was behind the move, which would transfer power over referendums from David Cameron to the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal that Salmond and several other SNP MPs have tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill that would change the law on independence polls and which also exposes tensions within the party about the timing of another vote.
Tomorrow, MPs will consider the amendment when the Scotland Bill is put before the House of Commons for the latest stage in its passage through the Westminster parliament.
The Scotland Bill has been produced by the UK government to strengthen the Scottish Parliament in line with the “vow” for more powers to be delivered via the Smith Commission following last year’s No vote.
The amendment has been tabled by six MPs including Salmond, the SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson and the party’s depute leader, Stewart Hosie.
It has been put forward even though the SNP promised that last year’s referendum would be a “once in a generation” event and both sides agreed the result would be decisive and respected.
The MPs’ explanatory notes accompanying the proposed change to the Scotland Bill state: “This new clause would permit the Scottish Parliament to decide whether and when to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.”
Salmond’s proposal underlines the former SNP leader’s determination to engineer a rematch after Yes Scotland’s defeat last year.
In the past, Salmond has claimed that another vote is “inevitable”, while many SNP hardliners have been clamouring for a second shot at independence in the near future.
Faced with the demands from within her own party, Nicola Sturgeon has been forced to act to dampen expectations by suggesting that another referendum will not be held in the short term.
The First Minister has said that another poll will have to wait until the SNP believes it can win.
As things stand, the power to hold an independence referendum is within Westminster’s gift. In order for last year’s vote to take place, the UK and Scottish governments signed the Edinburgh Agreement.
Under the terms of that agreement, the Scottish Parliament was given the temporary power to hold a referendum before the end of 2014.
The pledge signed by Salmond and Cameron also promised to “deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect”.
Last night the SNP’s opponents criticised Salmond’s move, saying it was time for the party to observe the Edinburgh Agreement by moving on from the referendum and start using Holyrood’s existing powers.
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray said: “Every side from the referendum last year agreed that the process was something that upheld the very best of democracy. To try and undermine that process just shows that the SNP is too busy shouting about more powers rather than using the ones they have now and the ones that they are about to get.”
Adam Tomkins, the law professor and Conservative candidate who represented his party on the Smith Commission, suggested Salmond was moving into “neverendum” territory. “Some leading members of the SNP have reconciled themselves to the referendum result more readily than others. Those others seem to think it is perfectly legitimate to keep asking the same question until they get the answer they want,” Tomkins said.
“The problem with this is that it goes against the promises they made in the run up to the referendum. We all remember Nicola Sturgeon standing in front of a poster saying this was a once in a generation opportunity. We have made our vow and we are delivering on it. This was their vow and they should deliver it too.
“The basis on which the Edinburgh Agreement was signed by Salmond, and Nicola Sturgeon, was for a legal and decisive referendum before the end of 2014. We held a referendum that was perfectly consistent with international best practice, but that doesn’t seem to satisfy some leading members of the SNP who are seeking to replace this one referendum with ongoing discussions about a neverendum.”
Tavish Scott, who sat on the Smith Commission for the Lib Dems, said: “So much for Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that next year would be dominated by domestic politics. Mr Salmond can’t help himself and the SNP can’t stop talking and speculating about another referendum and when it should be. The future of the UK is something the UK, including Scotland, has a right to decide on.”
Last night the signatories to the amendment defended their move. Hosie said: “This amendment simply puts the ability to hold a referendum in the hands of the Scottish Parliament. It puts the destiny of the parliament in its own hands.”
Robertson said: “There are substantial shortfalls in the Scotland Bill as it stands. The Tories cannot be trusted to deliver the powers people in Scotland want to see. The sole purpose of the Scotland Bill is to implement the Smith Commission in full. This amendment needs to be supported, to allow Scotland’s future to be decided by the Scottish Parliament, rather than a Tory government we didn’t elect.”