Michael Russell: Give Scots the right to decide their future

THERE will, sooner or later, be a referendum on Scotland's constitutional future, giving the people of this country the chance to choose independence and equality with other nations in the modern world.

That much has become clear as the debate on our country's place in the global community has moved forward since the SNP entered office in 2007.

It is no longer tenable for any democratic party in Scotland to stand in the way of that right to choose, and as time goes by, the confused signals from other parties indicate that they, too, realise there cannot be an indefinite delay in allowing the people to have their say.

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The latest example of that is the internal debate within the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who have now convened a special session at their autumn conference next week to debate the party's stance on a referendum.

That has come about, seemingly, because of deep disquiet in Lib Dem ranks, especially at the grass-roots level, about the position taken by the party leadership in standing against a vote of the people. It is, indeed, passing strange that a party whose very name proclaims its democratic credentials and which ordinarily favours referenda on a range of issues should have thus far proved so resolutely opposed to a referendum on Scotland's future.

In the week when we mourn the passing of that great Liberal voice Sir Ludovic Kennedy, the members of the party he once graced should be prepared to follow the example he set. While I would not expect all Lib Dem members to share Sir Ludovic's long-standing advocacy of Scottish independence, they would do well to adopt the free-thinking attitude he brought to his political contributions.

It is not for me, or any member of the Scottish Government, to tell Tavish Scott what his policy position should be. But with two-thirds of Scots and a majority of Lib Dem voters wanting a referendum, he might do well to listen to his party's grass-roots and support the government's Referendum Bill when it is introduced to parliament next year. The next stage in the journey towards a referendum is the white paper we will publish on St Andrews Day, in which we will lay out in detail our plans for a referendum.

We have always said it is our preference to ask a straightforward question on independence, but – recognising the range of views that exist – we have also said we are open to another option, on the possibility of further substantial devolution of responsibilities from Westminster to Holyrood. However, any such option would need to be very clearly defined, and thus far others appear reluctant to specify what such an option could entail.

The white paper comes as the Scottish Government continues publishing a series of papers taking forward the National Conversation, outlining how independence would benefit Scotland across the range of policy areas.

Those papers demonstrate the pressing need for independence. In the past few years, the European Union has expanded massively, with former Soviet bloc countries and others joining the club. But Scotland's voice remains silent in the corridors of power in Brussels. That is despite many of the independent countries in the EU being smaller than Scotland, some of them substantially so. Of the ten new members that joined in 2004, six have smaller populations than Scotland, but all of them now have a seat at the top table, fighting for their own interests, while Scotland remains on the outside looking in.

Take just two of those new members, Hungary and Slovakia. They have no coastline and no fishing fleet, but this December, when the annual fishing talks are held in Brussels, they will have a place at that top table when the quotas that affect the livelihoods of many of Scotland's coastal communities are being thrashed out, while Scotland – a leading fishing nation with two-thirds of the UK's interests – has no right to any direct input into these talks.

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That is utterly unacceptable and it should not be allowed to continue. But the only way we can make sure Scotland's voice is heard loud and clear on this, as with so many other issues, is for us to choose independence.

That is why we will give the people of Scotland that choice in the referendum we offer, and which the Scottish Parliament will be able to debate when the Referendum Bill is introduced.

It was only last year Wendy Alexander, as Labour's Holyrood leader, cried "Bring it on", followed up with the pledge by the Labour group convener Duncan McNeil that the party would "not vote down any referendum bill that comes into the parliament". It would appear those pledges have turned to dust, but there can be no reasonable argument against letting the people have their say. It is the proper, sensible and democratic way to decide issues of such magnitude, and successive opinion polls show that a majority of Scots want to have their say.

Some of the SNP's opponents say now is not the right time for a referendum. But the current economic climate demonstrates our case more clearly than ever.

The Scottish Government operates within a financial straitjacket, while all around us other countries facing the same challenges have the ability to adapt to the prevailing economic conditions because, as independent nations, they have the full range of fiscal powers needed to do so. It is only with the full financial powers that come with independence that Scotland can hope to compete on a level playing field with our friends in neighbouring countries.

And while the London parties may claim the time is not right for a referendum, they are undermined by their own pledges – Labour's to hold a vote on electoral reform and the Tories' on the Lisbon Treaty.

The London parties would do well to heed the words of Irish home rule campaigner Charles Stewart Parnell, whose observation that no-one "has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation" prefaced the Scottish Government's first white paper on the constitution in August 2007.

It is clear the people of Scotland want to have a choice on their future, and we intend to give them the chance to seize the benefits that only independence can bring.

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• Michael Russell, MSP, is minister for culture, external affairs and the constitution.