Unionist opposition parties were in disarray today after major confusion emerged over how to deal with Scotland’s independence referendum.
News that Labour’s London leaders have rejected the idea of wresting control of the ballot from the SNP follow indications last week that Tory PM David Cameron was considering pre-empting the Nationalists by forcing a ballot of his own.
However any suggestions of a Unionist pact were undermined after comments from Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran in which she described the idea as a “distraction”.
She said: “We’re playing Salmond’s game if we do this. We have to put pressure on him to explain why he is delaying and delaying. I would urge my colleagues to focus on that.”
The former MSP, now MP, argued that Unionists should concentrate instead on presenting the referendum timing as causing uncertainty for businesses.
She added: “Conversations about Westminster are a complete distraction. Salmond won the election but he can’t be allowed to play around with the timing of the referendum. There is substantial evidence that industry is getting worried about the delay.”
The comments are believed to be a reference to a controversial report compiled by London based financial firm Citigroup that warned against investing in Scotland’s renewable industry. However the report’s conclusions were subsequently dismissed by several respected businesses and institutions including global investment firm Altium Securities.
Labour leader Ed Miliband confused matters further by appearing not to rule out a united London intervention at a later date. Mr Miliband suggested that Labour might support a move to take control of a referendum in 18 months’ time.
Labour’s Holyrood leader Iain Gray though insisted that the Scottish government had the political mandate to call a referendum provided the ballot was properly run and was fair. However Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie claimed that such a mandate was conditional on the ballot question being clarified “quickly”.
The confusion was further compounded yesterday when UK Chancellor George Osborne indicated that the independence referendum is in the hands of the Scottish government.
In a move that suggests more and more Unionists may be conceding they have no political mandate over Scotland’s constitutional future, the Tory Chancellor challenged Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond to clarify both the timing and the ballot question saying: “The ball’s in your court.”
Osborne’s comments come one week after a poll by the BBC suggested that the vast majority of Scots wish the Scottish parliament to wield more powers than are currently on offer from London.
They also came on the same day that a leading academic claimed that any such poll carried out by the Scottish government would not be legal.
A Scottish government spokesman dismissed the legality claims saying: “We are totally confident of the legal position, as confirmed by a range of legal experts, and will bring forward a Referendum Bill for the vote on Scotland’s future to take place in the second half of this parliament,”
The spokesman added:
“Everyone else, including the Prime Minister and Scottish Secretary, accepts the right of the Scottish Government and Parliament to hold the referendum.”
First Minister Alex Salmond has already indicated that he is open to a Devo-Max option being offered on the ballot paper. According to a recent BBC poll the option is favoured by at least one third of the Scottish electorate.
The BBC survey showed that nearly two thirds of Scots are in favour of either full independence or control over all powers with the exception of foreign affairs and defence.
There is now growing speculation that the Tory/LibDem coalition might try to gain influence over the referendum by inserting a clause into the Scotland Bill that would restrict the Scottish government’s powers over the wording and options contained on any ballot paper.
However any such move would lead to accusations that the referendum had been hi-jacked through the back door and would increase the likelihood of the Bill being rejected by the Scottish parliament who will be given an opportunity to debate the proposed legislation before it is formally introduced.
In their election campaign the SNP pledged to hold a referendum in the second half of this parliamentary term. Their manifesto also included an option for Devo-Max to feature on any ballot paper.
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