SCOTTISH Secretary Michael Moore has opened up a new front in the referendum power struggle between Westminster and Holyrood by demanding it is held in September next year.
In evidence to the Scottish affairs select committee, Mr Moore dismissed claims by the SNP Scottish Government that the poll cannot be held before autumn 2014 and said it could and should be held 12 months earlier.
The move came the week after Mr Moore and Prime Minister David Cameron held talks with First Minister Alex Salmond over the terms of the referendum, with the UK government looking to temporarily devolve powers to Holyrood to allow it to set it up.
Briefings had suggested that Mr Salmond’s preferred date of autumn 2014 poll would be accepted.
However, yesterday Mr Moore made it clear that the UK government would push for an earlier date with both sides believing that, the timing will be important in the final outcome.
Pro-UK parties have always preferred 2013 because it is a year without another election and follows on from the 2012 Olympics. The SNP preferred a later referendum to follow on from the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in 2014.
The dispute over the date appears to have opened up as a result of the Scottish Government, which is holding its own referendum consultation, refusing to give ground on having a single question and allowing the Electoral Commission to set the rules of the referendum.
Speaking to the Scottish affairs select committee yesterday Mr Moore said it is feasible to bring forward the vote from the autumn 2014 date proposed by Mr Salmond.
He said: “I believe you can actually deliver this referendum by September 2013 which, give or take a few weeks, is close to the First Minister’s declaration that it would be in the second half of the Scottish Parliament.”
The bill, he said, could be introduced by autumn this year followed by Royal Assent in March next year. The regulated period for the campaign would then begin in June with the question going to the people in September, he said.
Mr Moore claimed all legal and procedural requirements would be met and criticised the SNP’s “go-slow” approach.
He added: “It seems they’re kicking the can down the road on this one for no good reason.”
His view has been backed by business organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry Scotland, which has raised serious concerns over the economic impact of the uncertainty delay will cause.
Labour’s constitutional spokeswoman in Holyrood, Patricia Ferguson, pointed out the referendum on devolution was organised much more quickly.
She said: “Donald Dewar held a referendum within 134 days of being elected. On Alex Salmond’s timescale, it will take him seven and a half years. The longer he delays, the more it fuels suspicion. There is nothing in the SNP manifesto which prevents them hold a referendum now, and the slower they go the more it looks like they fear the verdict of the Scottish people, who overwhelmingly back devolution not separation.”
But last night SNP ministers were dismissive of Mr Moore’s attempt to bring the vote forward. Parliamentary business and government strategy secretary Bruce Crawford said: “This is a silly distraction by the Scotland Office. The more they try to dictate the terms of the referendum from Westminster, the more unpopular the anti-independence parties will become, and the more popular independence will be.
“We have published a detailed timetable to hold the referendum in autumn 2014, and that is when it shall be held. This fully reflects our election commitment for which we received an unanswerable mandate – while the Lib Dems lost every single seat in mainland Scotland.”
He went on: “Autumn 2014 is the correct timetable for the referendum, which reflects the proper procedures of the Scottish Parliament, and the need for the fullest possible public debate on Scotland’s most important decision for 300 years.
“The Scotland Office timetable is flawed and full of holes. We have already secured thousands of responses to our consultation, and these will be analysed in the summer.
“This autumn and winter there needs to be a minimum of ten weeks to test the ballot paper – as required by the Electoral Commission.”
He also pointed out that the Electoral Commission criticised the timetable for the AV referendum on electoral reform last year, which caused problems for those organising the poll and for the voters themselves.
Referendum expert Alan Trench from Devolution Matters claimed that the vote date would not affect the outcome.
He added: “What needs to be done now is for there to be a clear timetable rather than bringing the date forward and enough time for the SNP to spell out details of what an independent Scotland would be like on a range of issues, but also for the pro-UK parties to say what the extra powers promised last week by David Cameron would be. ”
MPs on the Scottish affairs committee, which is boycotted by the SNP, were also critical of UK government tactics in dealing with the referendum.
Labour chairman Ian Davidson said that it was “an error” by the Prime Minister to suggest last week that there would be more powers devolved if Scots did vote “No” to separation without identifying them.
He said it would “allow the SNP to throw dust in people’s eyes” and avoid questions on details of what would happen to an independent Scotland.