Lib Dems offer SNP way out of independence impasse

Key quote

It would be a constructive, consensus-building approach and it would be in marked contrast to the constitutional treacle that the SNP are determined to take us into." - NICOL STEPHEN

Story in full SCOTTISH Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen offered a possible compromise deal to the SNP yesterday in the impasse over an independence referendum, when he suggested that the whole constitutional issue could be handed to a new cross-party convention.

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Mr Stephen said the creation of a new Scottish constitutional convention to review the position of the Scottish Parliament and find a consensus for a way forward would be a way of "shelving" the constitutional argument.

He refused to say whether he would offer the proposal to the SNP in any post-election negotiations, but it could offer a solution to the current stalemate between the Lib Dems and the Nationalists.

The Liberal Democrats are fiercely opposed to a referendum on independence and the SNP is equally adamant that there has to be a referendum within the next four-year term of the Scottish Parliament.

The seemingly intractable positions have made it difficult for either party to contemplate any sort of post-election coalition deal if the SNP becomes the largest party in Holyrood next month.

But Mr Stephen's emphasis on the consensual and cross-party basis for a new constitutional convention suggests that he may try to offer this to the SNP as a possible way forward, if the two parties start negotiations after 3 May.

The Lib Dem desire to reform the parliament and give it more powers was highlighted by Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's UK leader, who said yesterday that Westminster should use the tenth anniversary of devolution in 2009 to launch a full review of the powers of the Scottish parliament.

Sir Menzies said Donald Dewar, who created the devolution settlement, had accepted that devolution was a "process", not an event, adding the ten-year anniversary would be a good time for a review.

The interventions by Sir Menzies and Mr Stephen show that the Lib Dems have a clear two-pronged strategy to secure more powers for the parliament: on one side demanding a formal review by Westminster and on the other setting up a new constitutional convention in Scotland.

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Any new constitutional convention would be independent of the Executive. Its remit would have to be agreed by the parties involved but the idea would be to set up a review body, encompassing any of the political parties who wanted an input plus trade unions, the Churches, business and other organisations.

The convention would then debate the powers of the parliament and where they could be extended up to the point of independence before reporting back to the Scottish Executive.

Asked whether a new constitutional convention would be a way of "shelving" the whole constitutional issue, Mr Stephen said: "Of course it would - it would be instead of the divisive, negative way of approaching the issue. It would be a constructive, consensus-building approach and it would be in marked contrast to the constitutional treacle that the SNP are determined to take us into."

But Mr Stephen declined to say whether he would offer this idea to the SNP in any coalition negotiations, adding: "Let us take one step at a time. This is our policy but whether there would be negotiations with the SNP or another party after 3 May depends on the outcome of the election."

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader said he hoped a new constitutional convention might attract all the main parties.

"You would want it to be all-party, or open to all parties who wish to participate. You would hope that the SNP and the Conservatives would participate and civic Scotland, business and industry would participate."

Mr Stephen said the convention would be "far stronger" if Labour also took part, but noted its current policy was for the parliament to have no new powers.

Sir Menzies said the time was approaching when Westminster had to start looking seriously at all the devolved settlements.

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He said: "I think you have got to look at the relationship between MPs in Scotland and Northern Ireland and Westminster and you do it in a calm, rational way; you don't do it by trumpeting English votes for English subjects."

He added: "It would make perfect sense as part of that exercise to look at the powers available to both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament."

However, a spokesman for the SNP said last night the party wanted a referendum on independence.

He said: "We are fighting this election on a policy of giving people a choice, through a referendum in the first term of government, and that is our policy.

"Our policy is not another constitutional convention for Scotland - our policy is to have a referendum within the four years of the parliament. The people will have a choice. It will be taken out of the hands of politicians.

"I think the people are the best guardians of Scotland's future."

The Liberal Democrats were instrumental in the first Scottish Constitutional Convention, which drew up plans for devolution during the 1980s and 1990s. However, if there is to be a second convention, its make-up could be very different, with the Tories, not Labour, involved alongside the Lib Dems, the SNP, the unions and some parts of civic Scotland.

The Tories have been moving slowly towards a review of more powers for the parliament for some time. Last night Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, said that she might consider something more formal - as long as it did not destroy the Union.

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Miss Goldie made it clear she would not move from her total support of the Union but conceded there might be a case for more powers for the parliament.

Speaking on STV's Scotland Debates programme, which involved all four of the main party leaders, Miss Goldie was asked if she would join a new constitutional convention.

She replied that she did not rule it out, but said: "I would want to know very clearly what the terms of reference are."

Miss Goldie said she was in favour of "looking at the existing powers" of the parliament.

And she added: "I make clear that I firmly believe in our relationship in the United Kingdom but I do think the time has come to have a review."

She was then asked specifically if she would join a second constitutional convention. Miss Goldie replied: "I am not sure I would sign up for that."

Blair and Brown fly in to shore up campaign

TONY Blair and Gordon Brown are expected to join forces tomorrow to challenge the Scottish National Party's plans for independence writes Hamish Macdonell.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made campaigning visits to Scotland in recent weeks to warn about the dangers of independence, but this will be the first time that both Labour's top figures will have appeared on the same platform to attack the SNP's arguments.

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The arrival of Mr Blair and Mr Brown in Scotland at the same time is an indication not only of how close the election is between Labour and the SNP, but also of the nervousness in the Labour camp over the SNP's progress.

Party managers are aware that they have to do something to halt the drift of disillusioned Labour supporters to the SNP. The Nationalists have led in eight successive opinion polls this year and have entered the official campaign for Holyrood several points ahead on both parts of the vote.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, will spend today in Paisley, Dunfermline and Glasgow to launch Labour's town-centre strategy, outlining a number of new policies to boost renewal and regeneration.

Labour will unveil plans for Town Centre Trusts that will be given legal powers to initiate compulsory purchase orders and charged with bringing about dramatic change in town centres. They will have access to a new Town Centre Turnaround Fund, which will receive funding of at least 50 million from the Scottish government over three years, if Labour is re-elected in May.

Mr McConnell said: "I want to create a Town Centre Turnaround Fund that local communities can access so that they can take ownership of derelict and rundown properties to create new, safe, green space."

SNP 'on 51 seats'

AN STV poll yesterday suggested the SNP would win up to 51 seats in May. The TNS System Three poll put the SNP on 39 per cent in the constituency vote, Labour on 34, the Conservatives 13 and the Liberal Democrats 11.

Football pledge

LABOUR promised an ambitious 100 million programme to improve Scottish football yesterday. The plans include upgrading 1,500 pitches, improving 500 changing facilities, new "community hub" sports venues and a sixth football centre, possibly in Dundee.

A louder Voice

SCOTTISH Voice, the political party set up by the millionaire Archie Stirling, could pick up Holyrood seats after an opinion poll suggested 21 per cent of voters could cast their regional vote in its favour.

Green meeting

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SCOTTISH Greens have met senior civil servants ahead of the Holyrood elections. Two members met the Scottish Executive's permanent secretary, Sir John Elvidge, in what was described by the party as a "constructive and useful meeting".