DAVID Cameron is preparing to concede terms to Alex Salmond on the format of the independence referendum on condition that he gives voters a straight choice on whether or not to break away from the United Kingdom.
Sources close to the negotiations between the two governments, which have been on- going throughout the summer, say UK ministers are now preparing to accept the SNP’s demand that 16 and 17-year-olds are allowed to take part in the proposed 2014 vote. In other key concessions, UK ministers will also agree to the Scottish Government setting both the timing of the referendum and the wording of a single question, provided it’s accepted as fair by the Electoral Commission.
Talks between Scottish constitutional minister Bruce Crawford and Scotland Office minister David Mundell took place last week.
The “red-line” for the Prime Minister is that the final question put to voters in 2014 is a simple “yes-no” on whether or not they want to back independence and create a new sovereign Scottish state.
But that issue is likely to remain a major sticking point to the prospect of a deal as senior SNP figures say Salmond is still weighing up whether a middle-way option – more powers – should also be included on the ballot paper.
The pro-Union side will this week step up its call for a single “yes-no” question, armed with a report commissioned by Scotland’s opposition parties. It is expected the paper, co-written by elections expert Professor Ron Gould, will set out the legal and constitutional complications of staging a referendum on independence while at the same time asking voters about more devolution.
Last night, the head of the Better Together campaign, former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, claimed there was a “compelling case” for a simple question on independence. The campaign’s confidence is being boosted by current polls, including another today, which suggests that only around a third of voters currently back independence.
Although a deal now appears to be closer, there will be further hurdles to overcome. The pro-Union side is believed to be content to allow the entry of 16 and 17-year-olds in to the referendum franchise even though polls have shown that this age group is more likely to vote for independence.
While negotiations are on-going, a deal could be finalised between Salmond and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Cameron by the end of September.
This would involve UK ministers passing a so-called “section 30” order to give Holyrood the legal power to conduct the referendum with a straight “yes-no” choice.
However, sources close to the First Minister said last night they were still not prepared to ditch the option of more devolution. A consultation paper on the referendum run by the Scottish Government and set to be published next month, is expected to show backing from several public bodies for so-called “devo-plus” or “devo-max” to be included in the ballot paper.
One Scottish Government source said: “When you look at the broad swathe of opinion, we still think it needs to be part of the consideration. The reality is that there is a significant body of opinion that will support a substantial addition to devolved powers.”
However, hitting out at the SNP’s refusal to commit to a single question on independence, Darling said last night: “It’s time the Scottish Government ended the uncertainty before it damages jobs and investment. There is a compelling case for a simple neutral referendum question.”
A spokesman for the First Minister responded: “It is only right that these matters are carefully and properly considered, which is exactly what the Scottish Government is doing in our consultation.”