Launching the Scottish Government's white paper on the referendum bill, entitled Your Scotland, Your Voice, First Minister Alex Salmond said he was no longer wedded to the idea of a vote taking place on St Andrew's Day 2010.
He also indicated the Scottish Parliament would be free to frame the wording of a key second question on the granting of more powers to Holyrood.
With opposition to the idea of a referendum firmly entrenched among Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory MSPs, the SNP is almost certain to be defeated when it introduces its bill at Holyrood.
But yesterday, in advance of such a vote, the Nationalists were determined to push ahead with their proposals as they launched their white paper with a slick presentation at Edinburgh Napier University.
Flanked by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and constitution minister Mike Russell, Mr Salmond said he wanted to bring the other parties on board, adding that if opponents wanted the poll to be two months later than St Andrew's Day, he was "happy to be flexible".
The white paper was notably short of details on what the wording of an independence question would be or the parliamentary timetable for a referendum bill.
But the offer to allow Unionist parties to write a question on whether Scotland should have more powers was immediately rejected by Labour leader Iain Gray. "Why should we write a referendum that we don't want?" he asked.
Despite polls indicating only about 30 per cent of Scots support independence, the First Minister said that, as the arguments were debated, its advantages "would become clear".
But he issued a strong warning that if Unionist parties refused to give people their say on the country's constitutional future, then it would become the dominating issue in the next election.
"If the parliament, after deliberation, does not pass the referendum bill, then I suspect this issue of the right of people to have their say and determine their own future will be a huge, perhaps dominating, question in the 2011 Scottish elections," he said. "The central proposition that the people of Scotland should not be allowed their say in their country's future is an impossible one to defend."
The SNP later argued that its position reflected the majority view in Scotland, with polls consistently showing more than 60 per cent of Scots want greater powers for the Scottish Parliament or independence.
But opponents dismissed the invitation as a tactic by the SNP to prepare for a blame game in next year's general election and the Scottish polls in 2011.
They said Mr Salmond knew he stood no chance of getting his referendum next year and that he was trying to make himself look reasonable. The white paper was more like a "state-funded Nationalist manifesto" and "an exercise in vanity", they claimed.
The other parties pointed to the way the 176-page document pictured each minister – including four photographs of Mr Salmond – and had six pictures with saltires, three of oilrigs to represent the SNP's grievance over revenues going to London, and two of the iconic Forth Bridge.
Mr Gray accused the First Minister of being out of touch with voters and pointed out the latest poll showed only 20 per cent support for independence.
"What people really care about are jobs and the economy. It is the top priority, not Alex Salmond's vanity project," he said. "The majority of Scots also support the Calman proposals Labour has brought forward with cross-party support to improve devolution ten years on."
He went on: "The SNP cannot even come up with a straight question for their bogus referendum in today's white paper. Their problem is not only don't they have a question, they also have no answers.
"(Mr Salmond's] intention to add another question to a multi-option referendum is a sign of desperation. His latest option of 'devo-max' is just independence-lite. No matter how much he tries, Alex Salmond will not be able to con the electorate."
The option of "devo-max" appeared to be a direct appeal to the Lib Dems, who have made it clear they want Britain to become fully federal, with the four countries sharing only foreign policy, defence and a few macro-policy areas.
Mr Salmond at several points highlighted the Lib Dems' own Steel Commission report, produced under the chairmanship of former Liberal leader Lord David Steel, which envisaged a federalist option.
He also argued the Calman Commission proposals were effectively dead because of the positions the Conservatives and Labour were taking, which, he claimed, were a departure from the commission's support for proper borrowing powers and greater control of taxation.
The First Minister praised the Lib Dems for being the only Unionist party to remain true to the Calman Commission proposals and suggested that, because of the Tory and Labour positions, an option based on Calman might not be worth doing, but the Lib Dems' "devolution-max" option might be the way forward.
This was dismissed as a "clever trap" by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, who has been under pressure from some members in his party to support an early referendum.
"I have no intention of falling into Mr Salmond's trap," Mr Scott told The Scotsman. "I will neither vote for independence, nor will I facilitate it."
He said the SNP was "a minority party with a majority ego trying to impose independence on Scotland when it is neither what Scotland wants nor needs".
Mr Scott added: "This is not a real invitation for us. This is all about the SNP positioning itself for a blame game for the Westminster election next year and the Scottish Parliament one in 2011."
Senior SNP figures, however, hope that pressure from within the Lib Dems, where most members support the idea of a referendum, will see the party back the Nationalists over a plebiscite after the 2011 election.
It is thought the Lib Dems may see it as a negotiating tool, which could allow them to become part of a coalition government with the Nationalists should the SNP end up as the biggest party.
As things stand, only the two Greens are likely to support the SNP in a referendum vote, with independent MSP and former SNP icon Margo MacDonald attacking the white paper yesterday in her comments to The Scotsman.
There was also short shrift from the Tories.
Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said: "This referendum bill is a complete waste of public resources on something that the people of Scotland clearly don't want. Time after time, the polls tell us the vast majority of Scots don't want independence. Time after time, the First Minister has been told that his bill will not be passed by the Scottish Parliament. Unless he ditches his misguided attempts to hold a referendum, then Alex Salmond's political judgment will come into serious question. His obsession with independence is blinding him to the priorities of the Scottish people."
But centre-right think-tank Reform Scotland and the Scottish Trades Union Congress have called for progress in moving forward on Scotland's constitutional future. They both raised concerns the Unionist parties may stick with the status quo.
MORE FREEDOM BUT A NEED TO GET ISSUES CLEAR BEFORE VOTE IS HELD
John Smeaton, Glasgow Airport hero: "If it was held tomorrow I'd say stick with where we are. I don't think we are in the right financial position when both our big banks are effectively bankrupt. But I think the SNP is absolutely right to bring forward the referendum and I think it's a disgrace that the other parties are opposing it. The people should have their say on this."
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland: "I am comfortable with the idea of Scotland having a greater say in its own affairs. At the same time, Edinburgh seems increasingly comfortable as a host to a growing number of diplomatic representatives. Ultimately it is for the people of Scotland to decide whether they want complete autonomy or not and I am happy to accept whatever decision they make."
Sir Tom Farmer, businessman: "I am happy that there has been some clarification over what the question will be as far as giving the people of Scotland a proper choice. They can pick whether they want to go for full independence or 'devolution max', which is my personal preference. The analogy I use is my children who have now grown up and are now independent but not separate. After a few years of devolution max we could then consider full independence."
Donald Findlay, QC: "On the basis that we can't turn the clock back I suppose the status quo would be the lesser of the evils. In terms of independence, that would be a real problem for me, I would be off south of the Border. My own sense is that Alex Salmond is trying to pull something of a fast one here to shut up sections of his own party. There's nothing wrong with a referendum in principle but my concern would be about the question."
Clive Fairweather, former chief inspector of prisons: "I think devolution has been a great success and I think we should have a little bit more of it. There should be a bit more freedom from Westminster to make our own laws. I don't back independence, I think we are better as we are, but of course there should be a referendum. It is such an important issue. The SNP is hoping that almost by default we will become independent, so let's have a referendum on this."
Margo MacDonald, Independent MSP in favour of independence: "I don't like it. Alex Salmond is advocating policies that are not his own and he is now in a ridiculous position. I don't want this referendum (now]; I want it once there has been a clear programme of information about independence so that people can make an informed choice."
Ben Thomson, chairman of think-tank Reform Scotland: "The Scottish Parliament's almost total reliance on the block grant limits its accountability. Equally, it provides no incentive for politicians in Scotland to come up with innovative ideas to boost economic growth or improve public services."
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