Salmond faces backlash over independence

Alex Salmond addresses the Scottish National Party conference as his party looks on. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell
Alex Salmond addresses the Scottish National Party conference as his party looks on. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell
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ALEX Salmond’s referendum strategy has come under fire with the SNP leader accused of “making it easy” for Scots to vote against independence.

Former SNP MSP Margo MacDonald, a lifelong campaigner for independence, says the First Minister is “hedging his bets” by giving voters the chance to opt for “devo-max” instead of full independence.

Writing in Scotland on Sunday, MacDonald says there is “no need for a second question” offering more devolved powers alongside an unambiguous “yes/no” option.

MacDonald, the Lothians MSP who was a key figure in the SNP before she left to become an independent, spoke out amid growing concern among grassroots party members that the First Minister’s approach is likely to deliver a constitutional settlement that falls short of outright independence.

Devo-max would see all financial powers transferred to Holyrood while Westminster retains control over foreign affairs and defence. Opinion polls suggest this “independence lite” option has more public support than complete independence. But MacDonald argues that devo-max will deprive Scots of full equality.

“Alex Salmond gives the impression of hedging his bets and making it easy for Scots to vote for devo-max even though that would rob Scotland of the all-important psychological requirement of establishing legal equality with England,” she said.

At the SNP conference in Inverness yesterday, the backlash took hold as more details emerged of the government’s referendum plan, which was outlined in Salmond’s keynote address. He said he would campaign for independence, but admitted that the devo-max option was a “legitimate proposal”.

He went on: “In reality the SNP does stand for two fundamental aims … independence for Scotland and also the furtherance of all Scottish interests. These are our guiding lights and they are equally important because they reflect the reality that our politics are not just constitutional but also people-based.”

Writing on Twitter, Calum Miller, a former SNP parliamentary candidate, described the two-question referendum as “the ultimate manifestation of the Scottish cringe”.

Concerns about Salmond’s strategy have spread to the Scottish Independence Convention, the cross-party group established by the SNP to seek a broad consensus for independence.

Kevin Williamson, its vice convener, said: “I would rather have a straightforward yes or no question on independence.” The convention’s secretary, Mike Small, tweeted yesterday that the SNP had less chance of winning a referendum if devo-max was included as an option: “Would prefer yes-no and confident we’d win that, less confident we’d win three-way.”

Salmond’s strategy on the referendum met with dismay from some delegates in Inverness who believe the SNP is within touching distance of its Holy Grail of independence and that introducing an alternative generates confusion.

George Stewart, a delegate from Portsoy, said: “Independence is quite simple. You can decide for yourself whether you like it or not. If you want independence, just vote for it.” Alastair Carmichael, from East Renfrewshire, said: “One question would probably be the best way at the end of the day.”

One former SNP councillor, who declined to be named, was also critical of including a devo-max option. “As someone who has long believed in independence, I would personally prefer the single question. If you are a true independence believer, you just want people to vote on that.” Others, however, saw merit in Salmond’s proposal, arguing that a referendum that delivered devo-max would be a step in the right direction.

Gordon Wilson, the former SNP leader, said: “Alex is a devious old fox and I am sure that he has thought this out.”

Some Unionist politicians at Westminster have already made clear that they support a simple yes/no question on independence, and claim that Salmond is resisting because he fears the majority of Scots do not want to break away from the rest of the UK.

There are signs that senior figures within the UK government are keen to wrest control of the referendum from the SNP so that they can resolve the independence question on their own terms.

Yesterday, the SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell claimed intervention from the UK government would help the Nationalists’ cause: “This plays right into our hands, because every time Westminster threatens to trample over the mandate of the people and government of Scotland to deliver a referendum in the second half of this parliament, support for the SNP and independence gets a big boost.”