THE SNP wants the devo-plus option, which would see Holyrood take control of most taxes, included on the referendum ballot as an alternative to full independence.
Nationalists last night confirmed that devo-plus, which falls significantly short of full fiscal autonomy, but gives greater economic powers than the Scotland Bill, represents the compromise the party is willing to settle for if it fails to win outright support for independence.
The move came as a campaign for devo-plus was launched by senior figures from the main opposition parties. The campaign, led by Jeremy Purvis, a former Scottish Liberal Democrat finance spokesman and supported by former Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson, former Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott and Labour MSP Duncan McNeil among others, backs the option that would see Holyrood control most taxes, including income and corporation tax, as well as Scotland’s geographic share of oil revenue.
The Scotsman has learned from a government source that if a strong body of opinion lines up behind devo-plus, First Minister Alex Salmond could agree to include that option in the referendum pencilled in for autumn 2014.
The source said devo-plus would involve a significant transfer of powers, and includes the Nationalists’ demands for income and corporation tax to be devolved to Holyrood.
The apparent compromise emerged as a senior SNP insider sought to assuage concerns about Scotland going it alone by claiming that the country would remain “one of the British nations” after independence, with shared defence bases and the sterling currency.
Under devo-plus, Westminster would retain VAT and National Insurance, alongside smaller taxes, in order to fund the services it would continue to provide for Scotland, such as defence.
A Scottish Government source confirmed that devo-plus could be on the ballot paper if the proposal attracts enough support in the consultation on the independence referendum.
The government source said: “Devo-plus could well emerge as the ‘more powers’ option for possible inclusion in the referendum – if support for it builds through the consultation process and if there is a willingness to put it to the people.
“Like all the terms of the referendum, this is a matter to be decided in Scotland. And in all circumstances we are confident of winning the case for independence.”
The backers of the devo-plus campaign insisted yesterday that their proposals were “more popular” than independence and the existing devolution settlement.
Speaking at the launch, Mr Purvis said that campaigning for devo-plus in the run-up to the referendum was the “best way” of defeating the pro-independence campaign, although he insisted it did not need to appear on the referendum ballot paper.
Mr Purvis said the devo-plus proposals went “significantly further” than the Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster, which would hand Holyrood the power to raise tax by up to 10p in the pound.
He said: “Devo-plus is very simple. It’s about the Scottish Parliament raising what it spends. The choice is clear: either we are part of the UK or leave it.
“If Holyrood is not responsible for raising the cash it needs, then there is no incentive to improve decision-making.”
Tory MSP Mr Fergusson, speaking at yesterday’s campaign launch, insisted there was “an absolute requirement to have a single question” on the ballot paper, which would say Yes or No to independence.
Mr Fergusson said: “It is important that we address the accountability gap between what Holyrood spends and what it raises.
“Budget debates in the parliament have a major deficiency because they are focused solely on how public money is spent and not from where it is raised.”
Mr Scott said devo-plus would make a “very positive contribution” to the anti-independence campaign, as he appealed for the unionist parties to unite around the proposals.
He said: “The devo-plus principle of rejecting independence and improving on the status quo is exactly the right way forward to address Scotland’s challenges.
“It is a very positive contribution to making Scotland stronger within the UK, and I look forward to taking part in the group’s discussions.”
Mr McNeil said in a statement: “The devo-plus group will apply solid thinking and genuine rigour that places it ahead of the independence argument.”
Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling also welcomed the launch of the devo-plus campaign, which he claimed would make a “very useful contribution” in the run-up to the independence referendum.
He said: “I would need to study the detail, but my view is that any parliament should have the responsibility for raising the money it spends. That’s the mark of any mature parliament.
“The key question facing Scotland is are we staying in the UK. The campaign is a very useful contribution, and I’ve said that the Scottish Parliament would be greatly improved if it was responsible for raising all the money it spends.
“It’s one of a number of things that need to be looked at. Very few people are now arguing for the status quo, but before we decide anything else we need to decide whether Scotland is staying in the UK or leaving.”
Last night, opponents of the SNP said the party’s support for devo-plus, along with assurances over Scotland’s role in Britain, were indications that the Nationalists lacked confidence in their ability to win over the majority of the electorate on independence and were keen to offer alternatives to the status quo.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said Mr Salmond was “desperate” to ensure a third option on greater economic powers for Holyrood appeared on the ballot paper to ensure the SNP came out of the vote in autumn 2014 with “some political benefits”.
Mr Fraser claimed the SNP had shifted its support to devo-plus to “save face” following what he claimed would be an inevitable defeat for independence.
He said: “The SNP has shifted so quickly from calling for devo-max to be on the ballot paper to now saying that it should be devo-plus that it demonstrates how desperate they are to have a third option as part of the referendum.
“They know that the prospect of convincing a majority of Scots to vote for separation is so remote that they have to find a way of saving face.
“They will grasp at any straw, which give them the opportunity to come out of a referendum with some political benefits.”
Former Liberal leader Lord Steel has also called for “substantially greater financial powers” than those in the Scotland Bill going through Westminster, which would hand additional tax-raising powers to MSPs.
An official spokesman for the First Minister called on the UK government to spell out what new powers would be handed to the Scottish Parliament.
The spokesman said: “Scotland is in a process of independence, and we welcome this contribution to the debate on the need for substantial economic, financial and social powers for the Scottish Parliament.”
He added: “The devo-plus launch reinforces the need for clarity, in place of the current confusion, about what ‘No’ in the referendum from the Tories and other anti-independence parties actually means.
“This information needs to be in the public domain well before the referendum.”