The SNP could still gain “independence by the back door” through an “ultra extreme” form of devolution in a post-election deal, Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie will say tonight.
The comments follow warnings by former First Minister Alex Salmond last week that the forthcoming UK election could be used to secure “home rule” for Scotland.
Mr Rennie will claim “the Nationalist campaign continues” in a keynote speech in Edinburgh.
But Nationalists last night dismissed the claims and insisted there is widespread support for Holyrood controlling all areas of government policy except defence and foreign affairs. “Independence can only be decided in a referendum,” said SNP backbench MSP Mark MacDonald.
Mr Rennie will go on the offensive in a lecture at the David Hume Institute this evening in Edinburgh.
“The SNP want independence by the back door,” Mr Rennie will say. “As a minimum they say they want a form of ultra-extreme devolution that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and which would inevitably tip Scotland into independence.”
Mr Rennie will accuse Nationalists of “redefining what an election was about” after the votes have been counted.
“They told us the day before the referendum that it was a once-in-a-generation thing. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon stood beside a poster saying ‘One Opportunity’. The day after that referendum they started planning the next one.
“I find it inconceivable that their target to win every Scottish constituency in May will not result in an attempt by them to get independence by the back door.”
Mr Salmond is planning to return to Westminster as an MP in the forthcoming General Election in the North East constituency of Gordon. He claimed last week that the vote in May will be about “home rule”, not independence. However, the Lib Dem leader said that 20 months ago Mr Salmond had claimed “home rule” was independence.
“Those who thought that winning the referendum by almost half a million votes was enough to put the issue to bed or even a lifetime need to think again. The Nationalist campaign continues,” Mr Rennie will add.
But the SNP has pointed to a Panelbase poll carried out for the party between 18 and 23 December which found that 51 per cent supported the Scottish Parliament having powers over all areas of government except for defence and foreign affairs – or “devo max”.
North East MSP Mark McDonald said: “Among the remaining Liberal Democrat voters, 51 per cent support this home rule and only 35 per cent oppose. These are the powers to create jobs and build a fairer society that Scotland can only achieve by voting SNP in May’s General Election. The issue of independence, by contrast, can only be decided in a referendum, which requires a party being elected in a Scottish Parliament election with a mandate to hold such a referendum.”