CRUNCH talks aimed at resolving the stalemate over the staging of the independence referendum have failed to secure any breakthrough.
First Minister Alex Salmond and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore even appeared to be at loggerheads over what had been agreed in their meeting yesterday at the Scottish Government’s St Andrews House headquarters.
Claims that a deal had been reached on the date for the historic vote as well as the role of the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, quickly evaporated.
Mr Salmond will now hold talks with Prime Minister David Cameron in Edinburgh on Thursday in an effort to resolve the areas of contention, although the coalition government insists negotiations on the issue are being led by Mr Moore.
Opposition leaders said last night that the confusion yesterday did not “bode well” for the process.
Mr Salmond claimed after the meeting that there was no longer any “serious argument” about the SNP government’s preferred timescale of autumn 2014 for the referendum.
But Mr Moore quickly insisted the poll should be held sooner, adding: “There’s not a problem to bring this forward to some stage in 2013.”
The talks between the two men were scheduled to last an hour, but ended up going on for about 90 minutes.
Both sides were keen to claim that “modest progress” had been made, but admitted no deal was likely until the consultations being carried out by both governments were concluded.
There was no breakthrough on the dispute about the prospect of a third option on the ballot paper on more powers for Holyrood, the so-called devo- max option. Mr Salmond is in favour of keeping the option on the table, and also wants the franchise extended to 16- and 17-year-olds.
The coalition is not keen on either of these and says Holyrood does not have the legal authority to stage a referendum. This can only be done with the temporary transfer of power from Westminster by means of a Section 30 order.
Mr Salmond said some agreement had been reached yesterday. “I think both on the timing and the role of the Electoral Commission, I think these matters – I’m not saying they’re totally resolved or there’s not different views on them – but basically, I think they’re more or less settled.”
The Scottish Government had an “open mind” as to whether there should be a devo-max option on the ballot paper, he added.
The First Minister also said he was “favourable to 16- and 17-year-olds getting the vote”, before adding: “We will listen to the consultation exercise and I hope that once the consultation is completed, then that will enable us to come to agreement, that will shift the ground.”
Mr Salmond added: “Hopefully the voice of the people will prevail upon the politicians to find common ground on these matters and the objective is to have the referendum in the timescale that we indicated.”
The First Minister also welcomed the Scottish Secretary’s commitment to listen to the outcome of the coalition’s consultation before making a decision on this issue of a third question.
He said: “The message I would take from that is a message to civic Scotland that this is the moment to get your response in, get your oar in and develop your position to see that the canvass in these things is more than agreement between politicians, but carries the support of stakeholders across Scottish society.
“I think that’s absolutely critical.”
But Mr Moore insisted there were some “very serious issues … not only about the decisiveness of the question, if you have more than one, about how the result might be interpreted”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has previously raised concerns that a slender majority for independence might trump a landslide majority vote for more devolution in a multi-option referendum.
On the potential for an extra question, Mr Moore said he would “look carefully” at the consultation responses. But he added: “My strong view is that a single question would deliver a decisive outcome.
“The issue at stake is determining Scotland’s continuing place in the United Kingdom.
“I very thoroughly want it to continue to be in the UK. I am convinced that when we make a decision as a country, that is what we will decide.
“We think there are all sorts of technical issues around having more than one question that haven’t even been begun to be addressed.”
The Electoral Commission does not currently have a say on the wording of the question, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” This is despite concerns from SNP opponents that the phrasing is weighted in favour of securing a “Yes” vote.
Mr Moore said the commission should be involved on the same “statutory” basis as it would be for normal UK elections. He did say, however, that he was hopeful that agreement could be reached “very, very quickly”.
The Scottish Secretary also raised doubts over claims that “partly because of technicalities” the vote cannot be held before autumn 2014.
“I think it can be fairly straightforwardly demonstrated that it can be done more quickly than that,” he said.
“There’s not a problem to bring this forward to some stage in 2013.”
The SNP leader again indicated that he was happy for the Section 30 order to be used to give Holyrood the legal power, but rejected claims that this should be linked to agreement on other issues such as 16- and 17-year-olds voting and a devo-max option.
“Our difficulty is with the conditionality, with the strings attached,” Mr Salmond said.
Labour leader Johann Lamont warned Mr Salmond not to drag out the process.
“It doesn’t bode well for Scotland’s referendum that the First Minister and the Scottish Secretary can’t even agree what they agreed at their meeting,” she said. “It is becoming increasingly clear the SNP are determined to drag out the debate about process as a smokescreen for their faltering case for separation.
“If we are continuing to debate the timetable, the franchise and the wording of the question, then we are not talking about the things that matter to people.”
Both sides, however, insisted there were positives to take from yesterday’s discussions.
Mr Moore said: “This is the first meeting. It was constructive, it was thorough in looking at all the different issues and I look forward to meeting the First Minister again when we have gone through the detailed consideration.
“I think what people across Scotland will expect is that the two governments work together constructively with one another to ensure that we get a referendum that is legal, fair and decisive.”
Juliet Swann, campaigns and research officer with the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland, welcomed the talks.
She said: “It’s great that Salmond and Moore have met and begun to iron out the technicalities of the referendum.
“The debate ahead requires respect and recognition of the Scottish Parliament’s mandate over Scotland’s affairs.
“Once the details are agreed, it is vital that an independent non-partisan body tests and verifies the question, and that the poll is organised and managed in a similarly independent manner.
“We are pleased the Scottish Government has accepted the role of the Electoral Commission and we have every confidence in them to do this job.”
Ms Swann added: “We must bear in mind that the Holyrood system was not set up to manage majority government, which makes the role of the commission available to the parliament as a whole as an independent monitor all the more important.”