Scotland politics

MSPs back Holyrood referendum move

The Scottish Parliament has backed calls for the terms of the forthcoming independence referendum to be decided by Holyrood.

MSPs voted for the SNP's position as they debated the issue for the first time since Alex Salmond announced autumn 2014 as his preferred poll date.

The first minister has clashed with the UK government over who has the legal power to run the referendum.

Labour leader Johann Lamont called for the issue to be settled quickly.

But the first minister said his administration had the authority to conduct the vote under its own terms and timing.

In what was a symbolic vote, MSPs backed an amended Labour motion, stating that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament to make the arrangements for the referendum, by 67 votes to 56.

The heated debate saw SNP backbencher Joan McAlpine accuse opposition parties of being "anti-Scottish" for wanting to block a referendum, which the Tories' Jackson Carlaw described as "a form of political racism".

Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who called on Ms McAlpine to be sacked as the first minister's parliamentary liaison officer, branded her comments "an utter disgrace".

The referendum issue also dominated first minister's questions.

Leading the debate, Ms Lamont said parliament must agree to a full timetable for the referendum and ensure it provided a clear result by asking a single question on independence, rather than adding a second question to the ballot paper on increasing Holyrood's powers.

She also said the referendum should be overseen by the Electoral Commission - a move opposed by the SNP, which says the watchdog "is accountable to the UK parliament".

Ms Lamont, whose party opposes independence, along with the Tories and Lib Dems, suggested Mr Salmond and his majority government lacked the courage to bring forward the timing of a referendum.

She said: "He has a mandate, he has a majority, surely it cannot be he does not have the courage to face the verdict of the Scottish people?

"He says independence will be the cure of all Scotland's ills.

"The economy will be transformed by what his spin doctors say are job-creating powers, his finance minister says we'll be the sixth richest nation on earth. Scotland will be free and proud.

"He is Moses who has led his people to the brink of the promised land but, as they view it from the mountain tops, says to them, 'let's camp outside for a few more years before we go in'."

The UK government says it recognises the SNP's right to hold the referendum, in the wake of its landslide election victory last May.

But Westminster ministers say that, because the UK constitution is reserved to Westminster, new powers must be devolved to Holyrood to make it legally watertight and avoid a challenge in the courts.

The Scottish government disputes this, and has accused the coalition of trying to dictate the terms of the referendum, including the exact date and what appears on the ballot paper.

Mr Salmond said the Scottish government's referendum consultation, due to be published within the month, would spark "wide discussion" with the people of Scotland.

He told opposition MSPs: "In the election, we not just gained an overall majority in a PR parliament but on the list vote, the party vote, we gained more votes than the Labour Party the Liberal Party and the Tories put together.

"The people of Scotland spoke in the election and their voice was very clear indeed - a referendum organised in Scotland, built in Scotland for the Scottish people, discussed with civic Scotland and brought to the people in 2014 for a historic decision on the future of this nation."

The Holyrood debate came a day after David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband effectively joined forces at prime minister's questions to reject calls for independence.

Mr Salmond added: "Let me warn the Labour Party, if they go in with the Tories, they'll suck you in and they'll spit you out as they've done to the Liberal Democrats."

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the opinion of most people was still against independence.

"The next 1,000 days could decide the destiny of our country, not just for the next 300 years but for next the 1,000 years. It is that important.

"And the ground upon which the debate will range is not whether Scotland can be independent, but whether it would be better off alone."

She added: "Every opinion poll ever published shows the people of Scotland agree with me - Scotland is better off in Britain."

Recalling the 2000 US election, which saw a dispute over recounting in Florida eventually settled in the US Supreme Court, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said the referendum must be "fair, legal and decisive".

"The problem we face is not the specific type of referendum - advisory or binding - that matters, it is the substance of the question being posed that counts.

"Constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster, even though the mandate is here."

Green MSP Patrick Harvie, whose party supports independence, urged both sides to give ground on the Electoral Commission and the SNP's wish to allow 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in the referendum.

"These steps, each side giving a wee bit of ground, would set a whole new tone, and that's the spirit we need to go forward on," he said.

Meanwhile, STUC general secretary Graeme Smith called for an independent referendum commission, saying acrimonious political exchanges in recent days had raised doubts about whether the process could command widespread support.

Under the Scottish government's timetable, a Referendum Bill would be introduced at Holyrood in January 2013, with the expectation it would be passed by the autumn, and gain Royal Assent later in 2013.

The UK government said it wanted to work with Scottish ministers to make sure they could hold a referendum which could produce a legally binding result.

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