9 Jan 2012

Scotland referendum ‘must be held within 18 months’

Political Editor

David Cameron is set to offer Scotland’s First Minster Alex Salmond the chance of a binding referendum on independence, but only if it is held within 18 months – amid criticism he is “interfering”.

Scotland‘s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Prime Minister David Cameron is “seeking to interfere” with the democratic rights of the Scottish people by trying to impose conditions on the format and timing of a referendum on independence.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Stewart Hosie, the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, rejected the idea that a referendum would be held within 18 months.

“We will bash on, have the referendum in the second half of this parliament and hopefully succeed and Scotland becomes independent,” he said. Mr Hosie said Mr Cameron’s referendum offer came “with some serious strings” and he would no doubt try to impose the question and timescale on Scotland.

But Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told Channel 4 News: “It makes no sense to delay or defer the referendum.”

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish people had “overwhelmingly” voted the SNP into power in Holyrood last year, when they returned the nationalist party with a majority. She also said there was “clarity” in Scotland over the SNP’s commitment to hold the referendum in the second half of the parliament.

Reports suggest the Westminster government is planning to offer the Scottish parliament the chance to hold a binding referendum on independence, but only on the basis of a simple yes or no question and only if it is held within a certain timeframe, probably 18 months.

Battle of wills begins
When Alex Salmond won his landslide victory last spring, a rather shell-shocked coalition government in London didn’t contest his assertion that he could call a referendum on independence when he liked, writes Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon.

The coalition didn’t want to look like it was frustrating the will of the Scottish people. That’s now changed.

Read more on Gary’s blog: Battle of wills begins on Scottish independence

On Sunday, Mr Cameron said that he would publish legal advice in the coming days that would offer a “fair, legal and decisive” solution.

But Ms Sturgeon said: “This is a blatant attempt to interfere in the decision that is really one for the Scottish government in terms of the timing of the referendum and for the Scottish people in terms of the outcome.

“We were elected on the basis of our commitment to have a referendum in the second half of this parliamentary term. This is about Westminster seeking to interfere.”

FactCheck: Who loses if Scotland goes it alone?

Referendum plans

The SNP has pledged to conduct a referendum in the latter half of its term, which ends in 2016, with 2014 thought to be the preferred date. It is happy with a simple yes or no question, but Ms Sturgeon also said that there was a “significant body of opinion” behind a third option, for financial independence for Scotland within the UK.

Behind the politics lies a legal question, which Mr Cameron expects to publish advice on later this week, on whether any referendum conducted in Scotland without the backing of Westminster would have any binding consequences. The advice this week is expected to say that it would not – although its message would be difficult to ignore.

However Ms Sturgeon said this issue was a “red herring”.

She said: “This is about giving the Westminster government cover to interfere in a decision that is one for Scotland.

“Referendums in the UK are advisory. They are consultative. That’s how it is. It’s how the AV (alternative vote) referendum was in 2010, for example.
“This is not an issue about legal competence. I think the talk about the Westminster government attaching conditions to this somewhat gives the game away.

“This is about them trying to muscle in – trying to interfere.”

Read more: Salmond vows Westminster won't decide Scotland's future

‘Successful partnership’

For his part, Mr Cameron said that the United Kingdom was “one of the most successful partnerships in the history of the world” and should be fought for hard.

“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,” he said.

“Let’s not drift apart. I think he (Alex Salmond) knows the Scottish people at heart do not want a full separation.”

Responding to Mr Cameron’s remarks, a spokesman for Mr Salmond said his administration had an “overwhelming mandate” from voters for a referendum in the second half of this parliamentary term – a promise the SNP made in elections that swept it to power last May.