Labour says home rule would create `chaos'

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Labour and the Scottish National Party clashed last night over the issue of Scottish devolution in a television debate over Britain's constitutional future.

George Robertson, shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, condemned SNP independence plans, which he said would "smash up a country the Scots have helped to build", creating "chaos and confusion". Mr Salmond dismissed Labour's plans for a devolved assembly in Edinburgh as "toothless ... second-best and inadequate in the modern Europe".

Mr Robertson raised fears of an isolated, impoverished Scotland under SNP rule. He asked: "Do we really want to unpick the institutions that have been created over 300 years? Do want to make foreigners of our family and friends down south? Do we really want a separate Scottish currency, changing money for a weekend in Blackpool ... never mind the trouble for companies and industries as the Scottish pound fluctuates?"

Mr Robertson said Labour's new assembly, with an executive body responsible for implementing uniquely Scottish policies on health, education, housing, transport and the arts, would "take power out of Whitehall and return it to the people". But in a lively performance which forced Mr Robertson on to the defensive, Mr Salmond said Labour leaders from Keir Hardie onwards had promised home rule, but "the promise has never been delivered". Scotland was "an ancient nation with the trapping of statehood - a legal system, an education system, established churches, sporting teams - yet without the democratic heartbeat of nationhood; an independent parliament," he said.

That, he added, created "a vacuum that stifles our voice in Europe". If small European countries like Luxembourg could enjoy the benefits of independence in the European Union, so could Scotland. Separation and EU membership could be negotiated "in a matter of months". The "Great Debate" organised by the Scotsman newspaper and BBC Scotland took place in the chamber of the old Royal High School in Edinburgh, the building earmarked as the home of a future Scottish parliament. Mr Robertson and Mr Salmond were questioned by two journalists from the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, Andrew Marr and Neil Ascherson, and James Naughtie of the BBC.

The debate echoed the encounter between Mr Salmond and the then shadow Scottish secretary, Donald Dewar, before the last general election. Last night's exchange set the tone for the battle over the constitution which John Major has elevated to the top of the political agenda. The debate will be broadcast by BBC Scotland tonight.