Tories back vote on independence
A REFERENDUM on Scottish independence could be held as early as next year after a dramatic move by Conservative leaders to support the historic poll.
The party's vice-chairman has publicly backed a referendum as soon as possible to "clear the air" over Scotland's constitutional future.
Several Tory MSPs are backing the move, claiming the poll - which is likely to reject independence three to one - would "shoot the Nationalists' fox".
Conservative supporters of the plan believe it is essential to kill off the independence issue to reassure businesses and potential investors that Scotland has a stable future, while also giving them a chance to set the "positive case" for the Union.
The move, which has caused widespread astonishment at Holyrood, was last night welcomed by First Minister Alex Salmond.
The Nationalists have promised a referendum on independence within the term of the Parliament but the mathematics of Holyrood make it impossible for them to push through the necessary law on their own.
The backing of the entire Tory group, Greens and the one independent MSP would give them a majority.
Conservative supporters of the plan insist that a vote on independence is necessary to provide stability for the country. It comes amid claims that investors are already being turned off Scotland because of uncertainty about its future. The Tory calls for a referendum were led by the party's vice-chairman, Richard Cook. He told Scotland on Sunday: "I'm personally in support of a referendum bill at the earliest possible opportunity, to remove the uncertainty already being created to business.
"There are plenty of business people who are delaying taking business decisions at the moment, and that is jeopardising Scottish jobs and wealth creation in Scotland."
He added: "My position is that we should be making the positive case for the Union, not the negative case for independence. We are talking about the things that are bad rather than the things that are good about the Union at present."
There is increasing concern among Tories on both sides of the Border that a Nationalist government in Edinburgh, combined with a surge of English resentment south of the Border, is pulling the Union apart.
Last week, former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth warned there was a "worm of separatism" eating at "the heart of the Union".
Cook said: "The SNP is engaged at present in wonderful media management. There is a push towards independence in Scotland and it is also there in England, where you have the national TV news talking about how Scots are getting free this and free that.
"We have to make the positive case for the Union. The whole nation benefits. We should be setting out that position. The positive case is not being made."
Conservative support for the SNP would ensure that such a referendum could go ahead. The SNP is committed to publishing a bill setting up the referendum within the first 100 days of gaining office. Along with Tory support, the SNP could also bank on the votes of the two Greens and independent MSP Margo MacDonald, giving them 66 of the Parliament's 129 votes.
The Scots Tory leader Annabel Goldie is reluctant to support the idea, but she is now coming under pressure from several of her own MSPs and party activists to swing behind it.
The issue is understood to have been raised at recent party meetings, including at least one attended by Goldie herself. One Conservative MSP said last night: "We should definitely support the SNP's referendum. The sooner the better, because it will help clear the air."
Another added: "A referendum would shoot the Nationalists' fox. They would lose and the whole issue of independence would be off the radar for 20 years."
The drive also has the support of Tory MPs south of the Border close to party leader David Cameron. One said: "I would totally back this idea. It sounds eminently sensible."
The most recent polls have suggested that only around one in four Scots would back a move to full independence. Tory backers of a referendum therefore believe there would be little danger of them losing a vote.
A spokesman for Goldie said: "Annabel does not back a referendum. The party position has not changed from during the election. We are solely interested in getting on with bread and butter issues."
A source close to Salmond said: "We welcome growing interest for the concept of an independence referendum. The key issue is that a referendum offers people the right to choose Scotland's future, which is why it is such a popular policy."
Polls have shown that around 60% of Scots back the idea of holding an independence referendum.
Tory supporters of the move believe it would also help restore their image north of the Border, which they think is still suffering from their party's opposition in 1997 to a referendum on devolution, which allowed opponents to cast them as anti-Scottish.
Even though they would be campaigning against independence, they believe backing a referendum on the matter would ensure the public sees them as "pro-Scottish" and "pro-Union".
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