ALEX Salmond has confirmed that his preferred date for Scots to vote in a historic referendum on the future of the United Kingdom is autumn 2014.
The surprise announcement by the First Minister came as it emerged that any referendum called by the Scottish Government faces being buried by complex legal wrangling over the legitimacy of the vote.
Mr Salmond’s confirmation that he plans to wait until the last possible moment to ask Scots to decide the fate of the 300-year-old union with England followed a stark warning from the UK government that the SNP could accept the offer of legal powers to run a referendum on Westminster’s terms or face having its ballot rejected by the Supreme Court.
On a day of dramatic developments in the constitutional debate, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore launched an eight-week consultation on handing temporary powers to Holyrood to call a referendum on separation in a bid to wrest the initiative away from the Scottish National Party.
However, shortly after Mr Moore began speaking at Westminster, Mr Salmond hurriedly countered with his own announcement of a preferred date for an independence referendum, adding that a Scottish Government-led consultation on the subject would begin in two weeks.
It emerged last night that Mr Moore made a brief “courtesy call” to Mr Salmond before he made his announcement in the House of Commons.
Mr Moore insisted that the referendum must be “legal, fair and decisive”, and he warned Mr Salmond that without Westminster granting powers, even a so-called “advisory” referendum legislated for in Holyrood would be illegal. He refused to rule out seeking to have it invalidated in the Supreme Court in London.
The UK government’s consultation document also gave a strong hint that if Mr Salmond went ahead with his veiled threat of rejecting powers offered by Westminster to hold a referendum, then Westminster could press ahead with its own ballot.
The SNP was ridiculed in the Commons for appearing reluctant to hold a referendum sooner. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell asked: “Could it be that the bravehearts are not quite as brave as they have been before?”
The UK government’s conditions will include a date by which the referendum must be held, forcing the Scottish Government to use the neutral Electoral Commission to referee the poll instead of creating its own body, being able to ask only a straightforward Yes-No question and not extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.
All these conditions run contrary to what Mr Salmond and the SNP have said they want, and while Mr Moore yesterday said they were open to consultation over the next eight weeks, it was made clear the UK government is willing to be flexible only over the date.
It is understood the UK government is pushing for a referendum in 2013, but last night was unwilling to say whether Mr Salmond’s offer of autumn 2014 was acceptable. Mr Salmond’s political opponents mocked the SNP leader for being forced into revealing a date by Westminster.
Conservative Scotland Office minister David Mundell welcomed Mr Salmond’s “contribution to the consultation” but added that “the SNP will need to address the other issues”.
However, the First Minister, who is set to launch a rival Scottish Government consultation later this month, claimed that the timing of his announcement had nothing to do with the UK government. He also accused Prime Minister David Cameron of taking a “Thatcherite” approach to Scotland and trying to dictate the terms.
He claimed: “It is almost Thatcheresque, a Tory Prime Minister telling Scotland what they can and can’t do. These days are over.” But he welcomed the tone of Mr Moore’s statement to the Commons.
“The tone from the Scottish Secretary was an indication that they realise some of the disastrous publicity they’ve had in Scotland over the last 48 hours.
“So let’s see if we can make progress from there and have a referendum that’s made in Scotland, built in Scotland, proposed by the Scottish Parliament and left to the good judgment of the people of Scotland, who are surely the best people to determine the future of this country.”
But the angry interventions from his party’s MPs in the Commons – branded the “sulking six” by Labour MP Michael Connarty – suggested that the conditions on the Electoral Commission, excluding 16- and 17-year-olds and a single question will be highly contentious.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Moore said last year’s victory in the Holyrood election by the SNP meant that he and the UK government accepted there would be a referendum. He went on: “This is not an issue that can be ducked. To legislate for a referendum on independence, the Scottish Parliament must have the legal power to do so. It is the government’s clear view that the Scottish Parliament does not have that legal power.”
In a briefing, it was revealed a challenge could be made by either Lib Dem Advocate General Lord Wallace or Tory Attorney General Damian Green if they deemed the bill to be outwith Holyrood powers. But the government briefed it expected a challenge from a third party.
Mr Moore described the referendum as “the most important decision we, as Scots, take in our lifetime”. He added: “It is essential that the referendum is legal, fair and decisive.”
In Holyrood, opposition parties insisted Mr Salmond’s hand had been forced on giving a date for a referendum following Mr Cameron’s intervention over the weekend and the threat by the UK government to stop his poll in the courts.
However, they insisted that the crucial issues were who would referee the contest – the Electoral Commission or a body appointed by the Scottish Government, as Mr Salmond prefers – and what the question will be.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont described Mr Salmnond’s announcement as “panicked”. She said: “At last a degree of clarity, but this must just be the start. We need to know that there will be just one question, what that question is, and that the Electoral Commission will administer it. The First Minister should hold cross-party talks – including all quarters of civic Scotland – to discuss these details ,including the date.”
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson claimed “decisive action by the UK government” had forced Mr Salmond’s hand.
She added: “We can discuss times and dates as part of the consultation, but the key issues for me are what is the question and who is the referee? We need a single, decisive question and we need the Electoral Commission, as an independent arbiter, to oversee such a historic vote.”
Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “Announcing autumn 2014 as high-noon in the fight to protect Scotland’s future as part of the UK family doesn’t address the issue of ensuring the Scottish people decide the outcome, not the courts.”
It was clear last night that many business leaders in Scotland, who have been pushing coalition ministers to take decisive action, would not welcome the uncertainty created by delaying until late 2014. CBI Scotland Director Iain McMillan said: “Concern does exist in our membership about the uncertainties arising from the commitment to a referendum and its timing. That is why we have called on the UK and Scottish administrations to work together to ensure that any referendum is held sooner rather than later, to deliver a clear result either for or against independence, and to ensure its legality is put beyond doubt.”
Union leaders north of the Border also said they want the question to be put “sooner rather than later”, but insisted that it would be wrong for Westminster to dictate the terms.
Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) general secretary Grahame Smith said: “The Secretary of State’s aim of ensuring the Scottish Parliament’s right to hold a legal referendum is welcome in that it potentially avoids protracted and divisive uncertainty on issues of legal competence, which would have been to the detriment of the real debate.
“Once it is agreed that the power to hold a binding referendum lies with the Scottish Parliament, an independent body in Scotland should be tasked with the responsibility of making recommendations on the process and conduct of the referendum including considering whether a credible third option has emerged and, whether, and in what way that additional option might be put to the Scottish people.”
When the SNP put forward a draft referendum bill in the last Scottish Parliament, the Electoral Commission raised concerns over how it would be refereed.
Yesterday, Electoral Commissioner John McCormick said: “It is important that any proposals relating to the conduct of the referendum in Scotland are considered carefully and fully.
“Whether or not there is a referendum, who runs it and who votes are all fundamental constitutional questions. And as we’ve said before, it is right that the nature and scope of any referendum is decided by governments and parliaments. It is not for the commission to enter into this debate.
“While it is for others to decide who runs the referendum, we will of course share our experience and expertise when we set out our views to both parliaments and governments on the consultation published today. Our priority is to ensure the referendum is well-run, transparent and open to scrutiny.”
The consultation is open to people and organisations across the UK and closes on 9 March.
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