THE Prime Minister has made his boldest move yet in the power struggle over the referendum on Scottish independence, indicating he is ready to seize control of the vote and warning that it must happen “sooner rather than later”.
The SNP has pledged to hold a vote on independence in the second half of the current parliament – some time between 2014 and 2016. But speculation is mounting that it will be held on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
David Cameron said the UK coalition would this week step up efforts to confront the SNP’s dominance of the independence agenda by publishing legal advice showing Westminster must give permission for a referendum.
Mr Cameron said that most Scots “at heart” did not back separation, with Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander insisting that the “dithering and delay” will cost jobs and growth.
But the attack was dismissed as “sabre-rattling” by the SNP government yesterday, with Nationalists insisting that the referendum will be held by the Scottish Parliament.
Reports said the SNP wanted to use the anniversary of Scotland’s most famous victory over the English, on 24 June, 1314, to tap into nationalist fervour. It also coincides with the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
The Prime Minister’s intervention will be widely viewed as an attempt to reinvigorate and galvanise the “no” campaign, which has struggled to match the SNP’s dominance of the issue since it was returned to power with a majority in May last year.
Polls, though, still show little sign of a majority in favour of independence among Scots.
Mr Cameron yesterday accused SNP leader Alex Salmond of seeking to delay a vote because he feared the outcome.
“The uncertainty about this issue I think is damaging to Scotland and Scotland’s economy because you have companies and other organisations asking ‘what’s Scotland’s future, is it within the United Kingdom or not?’ That’s damaging,” Mr Cameron said.
“Secondly, I think it’s very unfair on the Scottish people themselves, who don’t really know when this question is going to be asked, what the question is going to be and who’s responsible for asking it.
“I think we owe the Scottish people something that is fair, legal and decisive, so in the coming days we will be setting out clearly what the legal situation is and I think we need to move forward and say ‘right let’s settle this issue in a fair and decisive way’. Then we need a proper debate where people can put forward their views.
“But my view, very strongly, is that the Scottish people deserve some clarity, some decisiveness and they deserve it to be legal and binding.”
The United Kingdom was “one of the most successful partnerships in the history of the world”, said Mr Cameron, who insisted that it should be fought hard for.
“It would be desperately sad if Scotland chose to leave the United Kingdom and I will do everything I can to encourage Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom, because I think that is the best for all our economies, Scotland included, and all our societies,” the Prime Minister said.
“Let’s not drift apart. I think he [Mr Salmond] knows the Scottish people at heart do not want a full separation.”
A spokesman for Mr Salmond said the Nationalists’ resounding victory at the Holyrood election in May last year was an “overwhelming mandate” for the referendum being held between 2014 and 2016.
“That is exactly what we will do,” he added.
He also brushed aside moves in the House of Lords to amend the Scotland Bill, currently going through Westminster, to allow Scottish-born voters living throughout the UK to have a vote in the independence referendum.
The SNP administration is adamant that only those on the Scottish electoral roll will get a vote on independence, in line with the previous referendum on devolution in the 1990s.
“Instead of sabre-rattling on the referendum, the UK government should be amending and improving the Scotland Bill to give the Scottish Parliament the economic and financial powers so that we can do something about the disastrous impact of Tory/Lib Dem policies in Scotland – also voted for in overwhelming numbers in the election, and called for by Holyrood’s Scotland Bill committee.
“As the Prime Minister has said… the referendum is indeed a matter for the Scottish people to decide,” he said.
“The anti-independence voices at Westminster seem to be in total disarray, and the Prime Minister would be wise to hold to the position that all these matters will be determined by the people and parliament of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament is perfectly capable of doing exactly that – supported by the overwhelming mandate of the people of Scotland
“In stark contrast, the House of Lords isn’t elected by anybody.”