SENIOR figures in the UK government are seeking to seize control of Scotland’s referendum from the Nationalists, The Scotsman has learned.
Westminster is exploring holding the poll on its terms, provided the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition can secure the support of Labour to create a joint pro-Union front.
The disclosure came as it emerged the First Minister will use his keynote address to the SNP conference today to try to tighten his grip on the referendum with an impassioned appeal to move the constitutional debate to the next stage.
At the conference in Inverness, he will announce that Scots are to be given the chance to vote for a “devo-max” or “independence lite” constitutional settlement, but Tory and Lib Dem ministers want to hold a referendum that asks only one unambiguous question on independence.
Alex Neil, the SNP infrastructure secretary, yesterday issued a stern hands-off warning in anticipation of the UK government stepping in, saying “the day when unionist parties at Westminster could club together to rig a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future are well and truly over”.
Unionists and Nationalists both fear allowing the other side to control the referendum could impact on the result.
SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland had a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to win independence”. She told delegates: “The panic engulfing our opponents right now shows that they know we are winning the independence argument.”
The coalition hopes the vote will result in a resounding “no” to separation, but before trying to wrest control of the referendum, ministers are awaiting the election of a new Scottish Labour leader, to clarify the party’s stance on the issue.
A senior government source told The Scotsman: “If they [Labour] support the referendum should be done in Westminster, then we [the government] will go ahead with it.”
The source said the reason for a Westminster intervention would be to ensure a simple Yes/No question on whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom.
Taking control of the vote would ensure the issue was resolved quickly and remove uncertainty surrounding Scotland’s constitution, which Mr Salmond’s critics believe is damaging business.
There is also the argument that a Westminster-run referendum would be legally binding, because, technically, it is Westminster rather than Holyrood that has the powers to call such a plebiscite.
Any such move by the UK government will set it on a collision course with Mr Salmond, who is determined the SNP retains the initiative in the constitutional debate and argues that the Nationalists were elected in May on the basis that a vote would be held in the second half of this parliamentary term.
A Downing Street spokeswoman described the suggestion of Westminster taking control of the vote as “coming from the left field” and said discussions were not taking place.
But another senior government source insisted ministers were just waiting for Labour to come to a definitive position.
Officially, the UK government says it wants to work “constructively” with the Scottish Government, but it has asked the SNP to “flesh out the details” of what independence will mean.
UK ministers, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have made no secret of their frustration over the lack of detail provided by the Scottish Government.
Westminster wresting control over the poll would send shockwaves through Scottish politics and be a direct challenge to Mr Salmond’s claim that only the SNP has a direct mandate to hold a referendum.
At the SNP conference today, Mr Salmond will say devo-max, under which Scotland would gain more powers without full independence, is a “legitimate proposal”.
He will confirm the Scottish Government aims to produce a single ballot paper posing two questions. One will ask voters to answer Yes or No on full independence and the other will ask for a similar response to devo-max.
Mr Salmond will campaign for full independence but believes a Yes vote for devo-max would be a step in the right direction should the SNP not achieve its ultimate goal.
He has also noted that senior Labour figures, including former first minister Henry McLeish and MSP Malcolm Chisholm, have expressed a preference for devo-max.
A devo-max settlement would see the devolution of all financial powers to Holyrood, with Westminster retaining control over foreign affairs and defence. Mr Salmond will tell his conference: “Fiscal responsibility, financial freedom, real economic powers is a legitimate proposal. It could allow control of our own resources, competitive business tax and fair personal taxation.
“All good, all necessary, but not good enough. Trident nuclear missiles would still be on the River Clyde, we could still be forced to spill blood in illegal wars such as Iraq and we would still be excluded from the councils of Europe and the world. These things only independence can bring.
“We have the talent, resources and ingenuity. The only limitations are our imagination and our ambition. So give Scotland the tools, put the people of Scotland in charge and see our nation flourish as never before.”
The First Minister’s rallying-cry will be the climax of the first SNP conference since the party’s electoral triumph in May. Delegates have already been urged to prepare for the fight of their political lives in the referendum.
Although Mr Salmond’s plans for two questions will be met with approval across the party, there will be some dissenting voices.
Arguing for a single question at a fringe meeting, Ian Blackford, a former SNP treasurer, said: “Our obligation, our only obligation, if we’re clear about maximising the potential of Scotland, is to put an unambiguous proposition for independence. What you see is what you should get.”
In his conference speech, Mr Neil said: “When David Cameron, a Tory Prime Minister with no democratic mandate in Scotland, comes, ask him: why does he think he can come here and try to dictate to the First Minister and the directly elected and democratic Scottish Parliament when we should have a referendum, what the question should be, and what the rules governing the referendum are going to be?
“And send him a loud and clear message, not just from this hall but from the Scottish people, that the days when the unionist parties of Westminster can club together to rig a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future are well and truly over.”
Meanwhile, the SNP’s referendum campaign manager, Angus Robertson MP, has dropped a heavy hint that the party intends to hold the vote in 2014.
So far, Mr Salmond has shied away from naming a date, but Mr Robertson suggested it would be held in “three years’ time” when he spoke alongside Mr Blackford at the fringe meeting.
He quickly added “or four years”, perhaps realising that he just might have let the cat out of the bag.