SNP under pressure as Scots back change

Alex Salmond has been grilled over the options on independence. Photo: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond has been grilled over the options on independence. Photo: Jane Barlow
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THE SNP was last night under renewed pressure to spell out the meaning of the controversial “devo max” option for its independence referendum, after a new poll showed the majority of Scots backed more economic powers for Holyrood.

First Minister Alex Salmond was pressed by his political opponents to define exactly what new powers would be devolved as the poll showed that 33 per cent of Scots favoured giving Scotland control over tax and benefits while remaining part of the UK.

With just 28 per cent supporting independence, Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrats used the poll to demand clarity from Mr Salmond on what the Nationalist Scottish Government meant by “devo max”, which the First Minister has hinted should be on the ballot paper.

In a day of claim and counter-claim over the constitution sparked by the poll, Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore claimed “devo max” was “ill defined” and called on the SNP to make its position clear.

He was joined by former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who claimed “devo max” was an “interesting little device to lump the votes together” and claim a “mandate” for independence, support for which, according to the poll, has fallen 11 percentage points from the 39 per cent backing in a survey published in September.

Newly elected Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson added her voice to the debate, dismissing the prospect of having “devo max” as a referendum option, suggesting that it would be an attempt by Mr Salmond to “rig” the ballot and win independence through the back door.

Former Labour first minister Henry McLeish told The Scotsman that “devo max” was “totally different” to full independence and claimed that voting for the option would send out a “powerful statement about Scotland staying in the union”.

However, Mr Salmond, who has previously strongly hinted that he wanted to see a third option of “devo max” on a referendum ballot, seized on the survey results to claim that the increased support for “far, far” more powers for the Scottish Parliament would lead to a surge in backing for independence.

The survey by TNS-BMRB for the BBC also showed that more than one in five English and Welsh voters interviewed backed Scottish independence.

The cross-party row erupted after the survey for the BBC’s Politics Show showed that 33 per cent of Scottish voters interviewed said they would support handing full “tax and welfare” powers to Holyrood. There was 28 per cent backing for independence, with 29 per cent wanting the “current arrangements” for the Scottish Parliament, which is due to be handed powers to vary tax by 10p through the Scotland Bill.

Of the English and Welsh voters asked the same questions, just 15 per cent backed “devo max”, 24 per cent opted for full independence and 39 per cent supported the status quo.

The overall support for a change and greater powers for Holyrood was 61 per cent among Scots and 39 per cent for English and Welsh voters interviewed.A TNS-BMRB poll published in September showed a narrow majority of Scots in favour of independence by 39 per cent to 38 per cent, with 23 per cent unsure.

However, the last time Scots were asked about a multi- option referendum, when voters were interviewed for an IPSOS-Mori poll a year ago, 32 per cent supported greater powers, with 44 per cent for more devolved powers and 22 per cent expressing “some other view”, while don’t knows accounted for 1 per cent.

The First Minister insisted that opinion poll support for independence was “increasing” and that there was “substantial” backing for the SNP’s flagship policy.

He said: “Your [BBC] poll says that the vast majority of people by a margin of two to one want to go much, much further than the current powers.

“There’s an appetite for change. It’s substantial and it’s growing. The vast majority want far, far more economic powers.

“I support the choice of people in Scotland. We campaigned in the election for a referendum and always said there would be an option of asking other questions. That was on page three of our manifesto. We got the most overwhelming mandate in political history for that.

“Having promised people I would hold a referendum in the second part of the parliament why would I go back on that and take orders from the coalition government?”

Mr Salmond later issued a statement that said the survey was an “excellent poll” that helped make the case for Scottish independence.

But Mr Moore accused Mr Salmond of being “sketchy” over the referendum, as he attacked the “devo max” policy.

He said: “I support Scotland’s continual relationship with the UK and I’m delighted to be piloting more powers through the Scotland Bill at Westminster.

“Very interestingly this poll shows that the demand for independence is declining. The debate is moving on and people are beginning to worry about what would happen if Scotland became independent.”

When asked if he backed “devo max”, Mr Moore said: “As a Liberal I have supported home rule as long as I have been a member of the party.”

He said: “It’s [devo max] ill defined and it’s something that the First Minister talks about without anyone ever really knowing what he means.

“People want a clear choice. People are worried in regard to whether they will get a clear answer from a referendum.

“He [Mr Salmond] has been very sketchy about how a referendum will be brought forward and when. There’s uncertainty about what questions are going to be asked.”

Mr Moore later issued a statement saying the poll was “confirmation that Scots don’t want to break away from the UK”.

“The Scottish Government tactic of evading the difficult questions is clearly faltering, especially since support has dropped since they launched their independence campaign.”

Ms Davidson also attacked the “devo max” option, as she repeated her support for Westminster seizing control of the timing of an independence referendum.

She said: “I don’t see us changing hugely beyond the Scotland Bill in terms of devolving more powers to Scotland.

“If there comes a point where I think Alex Salmond is rigging the election and it’s apparent that that’s what’s happening, then will I ask or will I advise that we take a stand on this? I’m comfortable with doing so.”

Sir Menzies, who chairs the Lib Dem home rule commission to look at increased powers for Holyrood, said: “There should only be one question as independence is such a major issue. It seems to be an interesting little device to lump the votes together and say there’s a mandate.”