ALEX Salmond is under mounting pressure to publish the SNP administration’s legal advice over holding an independence referendum, after he rejected a stark warning from the UK government’s most senior Scottish law officer that staging the vote without a transfer of power would be illegal.
Mr Salmond yesterday faced a series of calls to allow “proper scrutiny” of his government’s legal advice, which he insisted would allow the Scottish Parliament to stage the referendum lawfully.
The First Minister launched a strongly worded attack on the Advocate General, Lord Wallace, who said that Holyrood had no power to deliver a referendum of any kind – even advisory – and to do so would flout a “fundamental principle of democracy”.
Mr Salmond said that UK Lib Dem minister Lord Wallace, who hinted that he would go to the Supreme Court in London to try to stop an SNP-organised poll, would be “better off to reflect” on why his party’s support was “so low” in Scotland.
The SNP government has repeatedly insisted it is “entirely confident” that it holds the powers to run a referendum on a split with the UK.
However, Mr Salmond’s reluctance to publish his own government’s legal advice on the referendum was described as fuelling “suspicion” by Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary.
Margaret Curran said: “The legal competence of proceeding with a referendum is highly significant and reflects what a number of experts have said, so if the SNP holds differing legal advice, they should publish it today. Refusing to do so fuels suspicion.
“The referendum should not only be unchallenged, it should be unchallengeable,” she said.
“The SNP won the election and they should call a fair, clear referendum. But we are also determined that, on an issue this important, the process is not dragged through the courts.
“The legal standing of the referendum must be beyond reproach, so the verdict of the Scottish people is crystal clear.”
Lord Wallace had warned the First Minister to accept a UK government offer to hand Holyrood the necessary powers to hold the referendum.
But Mr Salmond accused Lord Wallace and his colleagues in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government of “sabre-rattling”, which he claimed was boosting support for independence.
Mr Salmond said: “Jim [Wallace] is speaking from the dizzy heights of the 7 per cent support the Liberal Democrats have in Scotland.
“Jim would be better off to reflect on why the Liberal Democrat support is so low.
“This sabre-rattling from Westminster is not doing the UK government any good, as we see that support for independence is strengthening.”
The First Minister said the Scottish Government had “no objection” to a section 30 order from the 1998 Scotland Act, which would allow a temporary allocation of powers to Holyrood. But the SNP government “objects to the strings the UK government wants to impose”, such as insisting that the Electoral Commission was involved in the staging of the referendum.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser claimed Mr Salmond’s refusal to publish his legal advice was creating “uncertainty”.
Mr Fraser said: “If Alex Salmond is confident that he has strong legal opinion backing up his case, then he should be prepared to publish that advice, so that it can be subjected to proper scrutiny.”
The Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, issued a warning to Mr Salmond that his “intransigence” would lead to a legal challenge to the SNP’s plans.
He said: “No-one wants the result of the referendum to be decided in the courts, but with the current intransigence of the SNP on the issue, I fear that is where we may be heading.”
A spokesman for the First Minister said the UK government had also failed to publish its legal advice, as he accused the opposition parties at Holyrood of “badly” misjudging the referendum issue.
The spokesman said: “The UK government has published its opinion, not its legal advice – and the Scottish Government have set out our position in a number of documents since May 2007. We are entirely confident about our legal basis to hold a consultative referendum – as confirmed by a range of experts.
“The Westminster parties should have a care, for their own sake – they have badly misjudged this issue and badly misjudged the mood of people in Scotland.”
The latest spat came after a YouGov poll suggested support for independence was growing, with 39 per cent backing it. However, the majority questioned believed Scotland should have complete control over its finances, while defence and foreign policy remained at Westminster, in an arrangement often described as devo-max.
The Scottish Government is due to publish a consultation document on its referendum plans on 25 January. A spokesman for the UK government, which has also not yet published its legal advice, declined to comment on the row.