THE referendum to decide the future of the United Kingdom could be held on a Saturday during the October school break, First Minister Alex Salmond has revealed.
In the clearest indication yet of the precise date preferred by the SNP, Mr Salmond said he had all but ruled out August and September and admitted that holding the crucial vote on a Saturday was “a strong runner”.
His comments came after a Scottish Government spokesman was reported yesterday as saying the referendum was being “lined up” for Saturday 18 October, 2014.
Political opponents last night warned that voters could be disenfranchised from the poll, with many Scots out of the country on holiday during the autumn break at the time of the referendum.
The Scotland Office described the move as a “panic measure” brought on by the increasing pressure to hold the poll in September 2013, when all the necessary legislation for it could be completed.
Meanwhile, political analyst John Curtice said the date raised potential problems by coming so close to the end of the party conference season.
The date was revealed in the newly launched Rupert Murdoch-owned Scottish Sun on Sunday, alongside an article by the First Minister welcoming the new paper.
It comes days after the media mogul hinted at his support for Scottish independence. Last night, Mr Salmond stopped short of confirming reports of the timing of the referendum, but admitted 18 October was “a possible date”.
The First Minister said: “It is a possible date, but of course because we said it will be autumn 2014 and we also said that we’re considering a Saturday, as opposed to a Thursday, to increase turnout.
“But we are only a month into a three-month consultation. I think at the last check there were 2,700 responses already, so we are heading perhaps towards up to 10,000 responses to the consultation.
“Once all of these are analysed we will announce what the date will be, and not before then.”
He added: “There are arguments for a Saturday, and we put these in our consultation paper. Basically, there is some evidence that it increases turnout, and in something as important as a referendum on the future of Scotland, you want to hold it on a day where the maximum number of people are able to vote.
“The suggestion is that it increases turnout by about 4 to 5 per cent. So on that basis, Saturday has to be a strong runner, but we will wait to see what the consultation says.”
Mr Salmond continued: “Actually, if you examine the autumn of 2014 and you accept that we want to not do it during the Commonwealth Games, for example, in August, and we don’t want to do it in the Ryder Cup in September, there’s only a relatively few number of dates that would be suitable.”
Last week, Scotland and Southern Electric (SSE) added its voice to groups such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Scotland that the economic uncertainty caused by delaying the referendum was damaging the Scottish economy.
There were accusations too from political opponents that the Scottish Government was more interested “trying to please Rupert Murdoch” than in taking seriously its own three-month consultation, which still has two months to run.
Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said 18 October, 2014 was likely to fall during the autumn school holiday and could leave many Scots unable to vote.
She said: “In Alex Salmond’s rush to cosy up to Rupert Murdoch, he has chosen a date which threatens to disenfranchise a huge number of Scots. The SNP’s rationale for a Saturday is to boost turnout, but this date would result in the opposite.”
She continued: “Why does Alex Salmond want to call a poll when many voters are away on holiday? It is simply not acceptable. This is a panicked move that is set to backfire as ordinary Scots wonder why the First Minister is leaking this sort of information to a newspaper rather than telling the country first.
“The SNP has still to put forward any good reason as to why the Scottish people have to wait nearly three years to make this decision.”
Last week, Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore issued a possible timetable for holding the referendum in September next year, and yesterday he demanded to know why Mr Salmond was trying to delay the question.
He said: “The Scottish Government’s declaration of a date shows what the rest of Scotland already knows – that they are simply stalling for time without explaining why.
“They are in real danger of falling far behind public opinion on this issue.”
He went on: “Briefing out on the date looks like panic in the wake of a major company such as SSE’s concerns about investment and CBI Scotland raising issues about the length of time Scotland would have to wait for a vote under their plans.
“The polls also show a significant majority of people want to vote earlier than 2014 and there is a clear alternative. Last week I published a simple timeline showing we can hold the referendum in 2013.”
Chancellor George Osborne also intervened yesterday, calling on the SNP to hold “a simple Yes/No referendum question” when the date arrived.
“I think frankly the SNP for the first time in a while are on the back foot, because they are having to explain why they don’t want the simple Yes/No referendum question – should Scotland be part of the UK or not?
“That has meant that they are in the difficult position of having to explain, well maybe they want a multi-choice question and I think that’s smoked them out a bit.
“It’s clear that the SNP realised Scotland does not want to leave the United Kingdom.”
Mr Osborne said the prospect of increasing the Conservative majority by removing the large number of Scottish opposition MPs from Westminster was not a factor in the party’s fight for the Union.
He said: “The solution to the problem of the Conservative Party not having enough seats in Scotland is to increase the number of Conservative MPs in Scotland, which is something we are working very hard on.”
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont criticised the timing of the poll, pointed out that it had taken just 134 days to organise the devolution referendum.
She said: “I do not understand the need for a three-year delay. There is nothing that prevents the SNP holding this referendum now.
“We can’t afford to wait years to make this decision. Donald Dewar held a referendum within 134 days of coming to power, but it is going to take Alex Salmond seven and a half years.”
And Ms Lamont accused Mr Salmond of being more interested in Mr Murdoch’s opinion than consulting the Scottish people.
She said: “Alex Salmond is supposed to be consulting with the Scottish people about his preferred date, but seems more interested in consulting with Rupert Murdoch.”
The leak to Mr Murdoch’s new Sunday paper followed support from the media baron to the SNP, Mr Salmond and Scottish independence.
Last week Mr Murdoch appeared to hint at support for Scottish independence on the social network service Twitter.
The tycoon, head of News Corporation, tweeted: “Let Scotland go and compete. Everyone would win.”
It follows a tweet the previous Saturday, in which he said: “Alex Salmond clearly most brilliant politician in UK. Gave Cameron back of his hand this week. Loved by Scots.”
The Sun newspaper, owned by News International, switched from outright opposition to the SNP before the 2007 election to support for the party at the election last May.
Mr Salmond spoke with Mr Murdoch this week.
A spokesman for the First Minister said Mr Salmond called Mr Murdoch to discuss his new newspaper, the Sun on Sunday, and said they also talked about the tweet.
Mr Salmond said: “It was an interesting eight words: a textbook example of how to deploy a tweet and cause a great stir.
“We are in a debate in Scotland and internationally about Scotland’s future, and I welcome all contributions to the debate, including Mr Murdoch’s.”