Jan 9 2012– DAVID CAMERON denied today that he was trying to “dictate” from London the terms of a referendum on Scottish independence.
The Prime Minister has been accused of seeking to interfere in the democratic rights of voters north of the border after reports suggested he plans to impose conditions on the format and timing of any poll.
Government proposals to be unveiled within the next few days are expected to offer the Scottish Parliament a legally binding referendum within the next 18 months on the simple yes-or-no question of whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
Alongside the proposals, ministers will publish advice setting out the legal position surrounding a referendum.
The Scotland Act 1998, which ushered in devolution, states that constitutional matters are reserved to the Westminster Parliament, and it is thought that the outcome of a referendum called by Holyrood could be open to legal challenge.
Mr Cameron said that his proposals will allow a “fair, legal and decisive” resolution to the uncertainty created when the Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh promised a referendum in the second half of the current parliament – probably in 2014.
The Prime Minister warned that uncertainty over Scotland’s future was having a detrimental impact on its economy and may be deterring inward investment by businesses.
But his intervention sparked an angry response from the SNP, which wants the Scottish Government to decide on the timing of the poll and the question on the ballot paper, with some speculation that First Minister Alex Salmond favours the inclusion of a third “devo-max” option under which Scotland would remain in the Union but gain more power over its own affairs.
Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC: “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.”
A spokesman for Mr Salmond told reporters that Westminster interference in the referendum would only boost support for independence.
“The days of Westminster determining what happens in Scotland are over,” said the spokesman. “Certainly the days of Tory governments at Westminster determining what happens in Scotland on the basis of one MP – one fewer than the number of pandas in Scotland – are also over.
“We’ll bring forward our proposals, we’ll stick to what we said we would do in the election.”
The Government’s proposals were outlined to Cabinet this morning by Chancellor George Osborne, who chairs the ministerial committee on Scotland. They are expected to be announced to Parliament later this week.
Mr Cameron declined to discuss the details of the plan, but said: “We are not going to dictate on this. We have first of all got to resolve this legal uncertainty and then try to work with the Scottish Government and make sure there is a fair, clear and decisive outcome.”
He added: “I want the UK to stay together. It is a fantastically successful partnership. I think Scotland and England are better off in the United Kingdom.
“But we can’t stand in the way of a part of the UK if it wants to ask the question ‘Are we better off outside it?’ We can’t stand in the way of that, but what I think the Scottish people deserve is a fair, clear and decisive question.
“We have to have legal clarity over who is responsible for this decision. Is it the Westminster Parliament or is it the Scottish Parliament? We will be setting out the legal position and trying to find a way through.”
Mr Cameron warned that delay in resolving the independence issue was damaging to Scotland’s economy.
Downing Street said that business figures – including representatives of some of the world’s biggest companies – had told both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in private conversations that the uncertainty was affecting their decisions on whether to invest in Scotland.
The Prime Minister asked: “If Alex Salmond wants a referendum on independence, why do we wait until 2014? This is very damaging for Scotland because all the time businesses are asking ‘Is Scotland going to stay part of the UK? Are they going to stay together? Should I invest?’
“We are beginning to see companies asking those questions so I think it is rational to put to the Scottish people, would it be better to have a more fair and decisive question put earlier?”
Ms Sturgeon said the discussion about making the referendum legally binding was “a red herring”.
“Referendums in the UK are advisory. They are consultative. That’s how it is,” she said.
“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.”
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “We want the referendum to be held as quickly as possible and we want it to be run in Scotland.”
If the Prime Minister’s proposals “help there to be a quick, clear and decisive referendum result, we would welcome them”, she added.