Alex Salmond has insisted his plans for an independence referendum in the autumn of 2014 are legal, despite Westminster saying the Scottish Government does not have the power to stage such a ballot.
The First Minister announced his preferred date last night for a vote on whether or not the country should remain part of the Union. That came just over an hour after Scottish Secretary Michael Moore offered to temporarily extend Holyrood’s powers so it could hold an independence ballot - if certain conditions are met.
When he announced his plans to the Commons yesterday, Mr Moore said: “To legislate for a referendum on independence, the Scottish Parliament must have the legal power to do so. It is the Government’s clear view that the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have that legal power.”
But when asked today if his plans were legal, Mr Salmond said: “Yes, we believe so.”
He accused Westminster of trying to interfere in Scottish affairs, and said the Prime Minister should “butt out”.
The coalition Government has proposed using a Section 30 order to temporarily extend Holyrood’s powers, enabling it to deliver a referendum.
The Scottish National Party leader told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme he had “no objection” to this, but added: “The objection, of course, is that the Prime Minister has started to put all sorts of London-based strings on.”
Mr Salmond said there was “plenty of legal authority” to support Scottish Government proposals to stage its own ballot.
The Scottish Secretary refused to say today if the UK Government would mount a legal challenge to any referendum staged by the SNP administration, but he said that the Nationalists’ plans “run the risk somewhere along the line of legal challenges”.
Mr Salmond hit out at UK ministers and said: “The Prime Minister came in with his size 10 boots and started to put all sorts of strings and conditions, and basically wanted to pull the strings of Scotland’s referendum.”
He said there had been a “huge adverse reaction” north of the border to “the Thatcheresque idea that Downing Street knows best”.
The First Minister continued: “Our conditions are quite clear: this must be a referendum built and run in Scotland, accountable to the Scottish Parliament. It has to be run fairly and transparently, of course, but we won’t accept unreasonable conditions placed by London on how Scotland should run the poll.”
The order proposed by Westminster would require any referendum to take place under the oversight of the Electoral Commission, with a single ballot paper offering voters the choice between independence or remaining part of the UK.
Those registered to vote in Scottish parliamentary elections would be entitled to take part.
But the SNP has previously suggested an independence referendum could be opened up to those aged 16 and 17, with Mr Salmond saying today: “If you’re having a vote on Scotland’s future, 16 and 17-year-olds on the electoral roll have a stake in the future of the country.”
Mr Moore, also speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, said: “The problem we have as Scots is in the original Scotland Act - the power to have referenda on issues to do with the constitution was not included.
“We wouldn’t want to carry out the whole referendum process, make the decision in the ballot box and then discover someone, somewhere, wanted to challenge it.”
He restated the view of UK ministers that any ballot on Scotland’s future should be held sooner rather than later, arguing: “My view is we want to get on with this.
“This is the most important decision any of us in Scotland will take in our lives, it’s the most historic decision in 300 years.
“A decision like that is one we want to get debated and resolved sooner rather than later.
“ With too long a period, we will just increase the uncertainty about Scotland’s future, which will affect jobs, it will affect investment plans.
“All of us in Scotland need to get on with a referendum that is legal, so we need to work with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to give them the powers to do this.”
Speaking about the Section 30 order, Mr Moore said: “We have put out a set of proposals, that we should have a clear-cut referendum, that it should be fairly conducted.
“We’ve also said we need to give a legal basis for this referendum, let’s sort that out, then we can have this momentous debate about our future.”
Former chancellor Alistair Darling said Mr Salmond had “put off” holding a referendum until 2014 because he “doesn’t think he can win just now and he is playing for time”.
The Labour MP for Edinburgh South West told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that much of Scotland’s political history over the last 40 years had been dominated by “process and political squabbling”.
But he said: “Get the process sorted out, let us get on to the merits of the argument because the sooner we treat people in Scotland like the grown-ups we are and we have a proper discussion about that, the better it will be.”