We'll rethink opposition to referendum, say Lib Dems

THE probability of having a referendum on Scottish independence increased yesterday when it emerged that the Liberal Democrats plan to review their policy on the issue in a forthcoming conference.

However, Nationalist chances for a referendum next year appear to be slim, with the Lib Dems understood to be preparing their negotiating position for a possible coalition after the 2011 Holyrood election.

Currently, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are officially opposed to having a referendum, with leader Tavish Scott insisting that one should not be held in a recession.

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In February, he said that he would not support a referendum, and late last year his party put down a motion in parliament opposing one.

However, Mr Scott has been under pressure from senior figures south of the Border including Vince Cable, a former Glasgow councillor, to support a referendum. There has also been pressure within Scotland, including from Scottish MEP George Lyon, demanding that the party changes direction.

Last month The Scotsman revealed that party leaders were considering a change of heart during the Lib Dem conference.

It is understood that the Liberal Democrats fear that the likelihood of a Conservative victory in Westminster next year will fuel the SNP's support in Scotland and there were calls to have a quick referendum to kill the issue off before then.

The latest developments seem to go a step further, with an extra session being tagged on to a one-day Scottish policy conference on 30 October.

The closed session will focus on the consequences of independence for Scotland, and how the party would fight a referendum campaign.

In an e-mail to delegates, Mr Scott said: "The session will give members the opportunity to consider the issues and arguments around the SNP's current proposals for an independence referendum."

A spokeswoman said this did not mean the party would change position, and that there would be no vote. Asked if wide support for a referendum from delegates would change their position, she said: "It will be fed into the wider discussion."

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The session will be co-ordinated by former minister Ross Finnie, which has also been taken as a hint of a shift in attitude. In his attempt to become leader last year he made it clear he would support a referendum should members want one.

He said: "Once we have all the information and the facts before us about Scotland's future, then I couldn't possibly rule out a referendum."

MEP Mr Lyon, who wants a referendum, said: "I welcome any forum that allows our party members the chance to influence party policy."

The move was welcomed by the SNP. But Tory leader Annabel Goldie said the "spineless" Liberal Democrats were "once again proving unreliable and can't be trusted with the Union".