Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Alex Salmond outlines referendum question

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond holds up his consultation document which he revealed to MSPs

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has set out the question he intends to ask voters in a referendum on Scottish independence.

The SNP leader said Scots would be asked: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" in a ballot which he wants to hold in 2014.

But a consultation launched by Mr Salmond asks if voters favour a second question on more Holyrood powers.

He said the referendum could be regulated by the Electoral Commission.

In a statement to MSPs, Mr Salmond described the question as "short, straightforward and clear", saying the people of Scotland would be asked to make the most important decision facing the country in 300 years.

But Mr Salmond said people would also be asked their views on increasing the Scottish Parliament's powers, short of independence, which has been described as "devo-max".

Opposition parties in Scotland accused the first minister of obsessing about independence at a time of economic strife, while the UK government has urged him to hold the referendum "sooner, rather than later".

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said there was "much to welcome" in the Scottish government consultation, but warned: "Any attempt to pass legislation for either an independence or 'devo-max' referendum would be outside the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament and liable to legal challenge.

"We have made it clear that we think the Scottish government would lose such a challenge.

"Clearly, the UK government still believes that it is in the interests of the Scottish people and economy to have a referendum sooner rather than later."

Mr Salmond said the referendum, expected to cost about £10m, should meet "the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety".

Mr Salmond told the Scottish Parliament: "The referendum will be held in autumn 2014 on the same terms as any Scottish election, to the same standards and with the same guarantee of fairness. We will decide our future in a vote which is beyond challenge or doubt.

"Our nation is blessed with national resources, bright people and a strong society. We have an independent education system, legal system and NHS. They are respected worldwide. I believe that if we connect the wealth of our land to the wellbeing of our people, we can create a better country."

A Referendum Bill, introduced to the Scottish Parliament early next year, could be passed towards the end of 2013, with the vote itself being held after the European elections in June 2014, and the Commonwealth Games, which are being staged in Glasgow.

The first minister said Scotland, under devolution, was currently limited in what it could do to create jobs, grow the economy and help the vulnerable.

The public consultation paper - Your Scotland Your Referendum - seeks views on what the ballot paper should say, what spending limits should be set and how the referendum should be managed and regulated.

Mr Salmond said he also wanted to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

The SNP leader was addressing parliament on the 253rd anniversary of the birth of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns.

Both Mr Salmond and Scotland's deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, later held a press conference at Edinburgh Castle's Great Hall, attended by 45 journalists from 17 foreign countries.

Westminster ministers have already launched their own consultation on plans for the referendum, saying further powers need to be devolved to make it legally watertight.

SNP ministers have disagreed about the legal position, and have accused the coalition of trying to dictate the terms of the referendum, such as its time scale and the wording of what appears on the ballot paper.

The Scottish government said it would welcome the extra legal powers, but warned against them coming with "strings attached".

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie described the statement as more Shakespeare than Burns, saying it was "much ado about nothing".

"While independence dominates the work of his government, our country is gripped by unemployment and rising costs," he said.

"I, as a Liberal Democrat, want home rule within the UK family, sharing the risks and rewards in a turbulent world."

Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour leader, said: "The most important thing is that whichever side wins this referendum, it, and the process to it, is conducted in such a way that the day after it all Scots can come together to fulfil our national duty to make Scotland all it can be.

"Sadly, the first minister declined those talks, and this consultation paper has done little for those who fear this process is not a fair one.

"For all the poetry and the pomp, this, his fourth crack at a consultation paper, is one of political calculations and assertions."

'Wriggle room'

Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson said she was glad that Mr Salmond had set out his preference for a single question on independence.

But she added: "I notice that the first minister has left wriggle room for a second question in there. We believe that the question should be fair and decisive."

And the Scottish Green Party called for the coming months of civic debate to act as testbed for a more inclusive way of doing politics in Scotland.

Its leader Patrick Harvie said: "I welcome the move to accept the oversight of the Electoral Commission by the Scottish government.

"Now it's time for Westminster to give ground and allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote."

After the statement, the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, said the latest developments raised serious questions for the rest of the UK.

"Any change in the constitutional status of Scotland is bound to have an effect not just on England but on Wales and Northern Ireland as well," he said.

"My focus will be on ensuring the UK is kept together - four different nations drawing strength from each other for the common good."

Scotland's Electoral Commissioner, John McCormick, added: "Our priority is to ensure any referendum is well run, transparent and focused on voters and we will share our experience and expertise in running referendums when we respond to both parliaments and governments on their respective consultations."

Mr Salmond said he looked forward to discussing this issue with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Prime Minister David Cameron "in the coming days".

The Scottish government consultation closes on 11 May.

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