MSPs back Holyrood referendum move

From Democracy Live: Labour leader Johann Lamont led the referendum debate

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.

Joan McAlpine row - what was said in the chamber

Joan McAlpine (SNP): "I absolutely make no apology for saying that the Liberals, the Labour Party and the Tories are anti-Scottish in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people, the democratic mandate the Scottish people gave us to hold the referendum at a time of our choosing, which the first minister said would be the latter half of the parliament.

"And I think to watch you cosying up on the sofas of various Scottish television studios I think will really alarm the people of Scotland."

Neil Findlay (Labour): "I think the member should seriously consider what she is saying.

"Given the views that opinion polls suggest of the vast majority of the Scottish people, is she suggesting that they're not patriotic and do not love their country? If she is, that is an utter disgrace."

Joan McAlpine: "I actually didn't address my comments to the people of Scotland, I addressed my comments to the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats who, thank goodness, do not represent the people of Scotland and, as the first minister said earlier, were out-polled in their entirety by the SNP last year.

Jackson Carlaw (Tory): "I am a proud Scot, I am an elected member of this chamber and I have every right and intention of being an active participant in this debate.

"The claim by the SNP that there is some additional moral authority or additional pride or additional birthright to speak on behalf of the people of Scotland because they vote SNP is offensive.

"If you spoke against somebody who was gay, you would be homophobic. If you speak against somebody who was black, you would be racist. If you say people are anti-Scottish because they belong to a different political party, that is a form of political racism"

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.

From parliament

Have a look back at our coverage of First Minister's Questions.

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.

Start Quote

In one sense, we learned relatively little of practical import. But then that is where the debate is at the moment: the earliest of early days in terms of sorting out the rules for the coming plebiscite”

End Quote

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".

Amended Labour referendum motion passed by MSPs

Parliament recognises the mandate given to the Scottish government by the people of Scotland in the May 2011 Scottish election to hold a referendum offering people the choice to decide their future and agrees that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament to decide the timing and arrangements for the referendum; welcomes the announcement of autumn 2014 as the date for Scotland's referendum; believes that 16 and 17-year-olds on the electoral roll should have the opportunity to vote, as it is their future along with everyone else's that will be determined by the result; encourages all Scots to take part in the Scottish government's consultation on the referendum to be launched in the week beginning 23 January 2012, and affirms that constitutional change is a process and that what ultimately matters is that the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live in Scotland, achieve a parliament with the powers and responsibilities of independence to grow the economy, create jobs, build a strong society and give all of Scotland's people the life chances that they deserve.

"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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