Nationalists 'give up' on 2010 referendum

SENIOR figures within the SNP have privately accepted that their hopes of securing a referendum on independence in 2010 are dead, The Scotsman can reveal.

While SNP MSPs are still pushing publicly for a vote, there is a growing acceptance in the party hierarchy that none of the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat opposition parties will support a poll before the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2011.

However, party officials are hopeful that a referendum can be held in 2012, with a growing possibility that the Lib Dems will support the Nationalists' call for the people of Scotland to be given their say.

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Without the support of at least one of the main opposition parties, the Referendum Bill would not be able to proceed.

Significantly, the Scottish Liberal Democrats will meet today in Dunfermline to discuss the party's position on a referendum, after senior figures openly split on the issue over the past few weeks. While the party is against independence, many believe denying the public a vote could be seen as undemocratic.

A senior SNP source has told The Scotsman that, while they do not expect the Lib Dems – who currently have 16 MSPs – to do an immediate U-turn on the referendum, they anticipate the party will change its position after the 2011 election.

This would give the Lib Dems leverage in possible coalition negotiations, if the SNP is once again returned as Scotland's largest party.

The SNP source said today's Lib Dem conference "is about having a new position for 2011, when they will be looking to negotiate to be part of a coalition".

He went on: "We don't expect that they (the Lib Dems] will change their position immediately, but this is clearly the beginning of a process where their position will change.

"This conference is about keeping a lid on it, but it is also about the how, the why and the when that position will be changed."

John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said Scots should now "pencil in" the first Thursday of May 2012 as a probable date for an independence poll.

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"I think it is clear now that there will not be a referendum next year, and it is clear from these comments that the SNP now accept that," said Prof Curtice, who is one of the UK's leading political analysts.

"We all thought it was dead anyway until the Liberal Democrats announced this conference. Now there is a life-support machine waiting to be attached to it. It looks likely, though, that it will not be attached immediately.

"The SNP are, of course, looking for political leverage to get one, so they will be hoping that the Liberal Democrats will want to use that as political leverage after the Holyrood election in 2011 to get what it wants."

He believed it would be difficult for the Lib Dem leadership to maintain its opposition to a referendum and that the excuse of "it's not what people in the street are worried about" would "wear thin".

He added: "Personally, I would pencil in the first week of May 2012, when the Scottish council elections will be held.

"Tavish Scott (the Scottish Lib Dem leader] would not agree to a referendum on a nationally charged date like St Andrew's Day, so the day of the council elections might be a useful compromise for the SNP to put forward."

Prof Curtice suggested First Minister Alex Salmond would make good on his promise to introduce a multi-option referendum, including the option of greater devolution favoured by the Lib Dems, to start the process of compromise towards an eventual agreement in 2011.

But he warned both parties that the Westminster election result might add further complications, with the possibility of a hung parliament that could see both the SNP and Lib Dems trying to ring out concessions on their different constitutional goals.

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The Scottish Lib Dems' debate on independence and the party's position on a referendum will be held behind closed doors today and chaired by former leadership contender Ross Finnie.

It follows a call for a referendum from the Lib Dem MEP George Lyon and the Edinburgh North and Leith candidate Kevin Lang ahead of the party's UK conference in Brighton last month.

Several MSPs, including the veteran John Farquhar Munro, are also believed to back a referendum.

But Mr Scott has consistently opposed holding an independence plebiscite, and it is his firm position that is believed to have been a major reason why the Lib Dems did not go into coalition with the SNP in 2007.

But the party's Scottish leader has been looking increasingly isolated on the issue. A YouGov poll in September showed that 65 per cent of Scottish Lib Dem voters supported a referendum, while only 28 per cent were against.

Yesterday, a senior party source was reported as saying: "It is very likely a clear majority of people are going to speak and vote in favour of the principle of having a referendum."

Last night, a spokeswoman for the Lib Dems said: "We're looking forward to the session at conference at the weekend. This will be a chance for party members to have their say about independence."