NICK Clegg last night branded those who believed in Scottish independence as “extremists”, as he claimed the Liberal Democrats had won the “centre ground” of the constitutional debate by calling for more Holyrood powers short of separation.
The Deputy Prime Minister underlined his commitment to handing more powers to the Scottish Parliament as he declared that he was a “devolutionist” rather than a Unionist.
On a visit north of the Border, Mr Clegg described independence as “the extreme” – a choice of words that led to the SNP suggesting that the Lib Dem leader should “rethink” his language.
In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Clegg was asked whether he regarded himself as a Unionist, a term that has already been rejected by the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and the Lib Dem Scottish leader Willie Rennie.
“No,” replied Mr Clegg. “I would describe myself as a devolutionist, someone who believes in a strong Scotland, in a strong United Kingdom, but where Scotland increasingly takes on more and more of its own powers and responsibilities.
“The reason that I am not going to use the labels that you want to attach to me, is that we have a very clear Liberal Democrat vision of the United Kingdom, held together but within it the nations of the United Kingdom expressing themselves in their own terms.”
Mr Clegg said the Lib Dems vision of Home Rule represented the views of the Scottish people and argued that those who were for independence, or keeping the current constitutional settlement, were extremists.
“All the evidence suggests that is the mainstream of opinion and the extremists are those who either think that we need to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom tomorrow, or those who say there should be no further change at all,” Mr Clegg said.
“Well, I don’t agree with either of those two extremes.
“I and my party are very much situated in the centre ground of Scottish public opinion, which says let’s retain the strengths of being part of the United Kingdom because we are stronger together and weaker apart in a very uncertain world.
“But, within that, give Scotland more and more authority and power to do its own thing.”
The SNP objected to Mr Clegg’s description of the pro-independence movement. A spokeswoman said: “Nick Clegg is spending too much time with the Tories. His comments are the same old and tired Tory scaremongering and he may want to rethink his language. Whilst Clegg clings to an outdated Union and fails to offer the full financial powers the Scottish people want, the SNP will continue to lead the ambitions of the people for Scotland to have the same powers as any other nation.”
Mr Clegg was in Dunfermline to promote a £1 billion UK Government scheme to deal with youth unemployment. He called on the SNP to support the Youth Contract, which aims to find at least 410,000 work places for 18 to 24-year-olds across the UK, with wage subsidies worth £2,275 handed to employers.
Later, he visited Edinburgh City Council, where he met the local authority’s Lib Dem leader Jenny Dawe.
Mr Clegg called on First Minister Alex Salmond to clarify his position on the constitution, saying: “I always thought the SNP stood for independence, now they seem to stand for a smorgasboard of multiple choice questions about a variety of different futures for Scotland.
“I wish they would have the courage of their convictions and just argue for independence plain and simple. Let’s have that debate, let’s have the referendum and then the country can move on.”