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UK Politics

Alex Salmond resists referendum calls


Alex Salmond has dismissed fresh attempts at the Scottish Parliament to force an early referendum on independence.

The First Minister insisted he will stick to his plan and put the question to a ballot in autumn 2014.

The highly-charged constitutional debate shifted back to Edinburgh from London following days of wrangling between the UK and Scottish governments.

Mr Salmond has already rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's offer to grant MSPs the temporary power to hold an earlier "legal" referendum.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, who won a majority at Holyrood last May, wants a specially-created body to oversee the referendum, which would be open to people as young as 16 north of the border.

He said: "The people of Scotland spoke in the election and their voice was very clear indeed.

"A referendum orgainsed in Scotland, built in Scotland, for the Scottish people, discussed with civic Scotland and then brought to the people in 2014 for a historic decision on the future of this nation."

Although the independence referendum was in the manifesto, the first reference to it being in the second half of the five-year parliament was made days before the election in a televised debate.

Newly-elected Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, leading a debate on Scotland's future at Holyrood today, suggested Mr Salmond lacks the courage to bring forward the timing of a referendum.

She said: "What's he frightened of? He can get any legislation he likes past this parliament.

"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'."

She said it is bizarre that the pro-independence SNP opposes unionist calls for a "legal, firm and decisive referendum, held soon". Labour, Tories and Lib Dems want the Electoral Commission to oversee the ballot.

Ms Lamont began the debate at Holyrood by saying it is her "patriotic belief" that Scotland should stay within the United Kingdom.

During the debate, the First Minister cast his memory back to the late 1970s, highlighting the previous involvement of a Westminster government in a Scottish referendum.

He referred to a controversial bar imposed on the first devolution referendum which meant 40% of the electorate had to vote "yes". The limit was not achieved, even though more people voted in favour.

He also warned the Labour Party not to get too close to the Conservatives.

Yesterday, Mr Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband joined forces in the House of Commons in pledging to fight for Scotland to remain part of the UK.

Mr Salmond said: "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."

The exchanges were made as a new poll conducted by YouGov for the Sun newspaper put support for independence at 33% with 53% against and 14% undecided.

The same level of support for Scottish independence was found among voters in England and Wales.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: "Every opinion poll ever published shows that the people of Scotland agree with me - Scotland is better off in Britain."

She said the offer from the UK Government to temporarily extend Holyrood's powers is a "reasonable and constructive offer".

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie referred to the US elections of 2000 which saw a dispute over recounting in Florida eventually settled in the US Supreme Court.

He said: "We've been fortunate in the United Kingdom that legal challenges to elections have not dominated the political process.

"But that could all change. 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."

Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie urged both sides to give ground on the argument.

"I think the Scottish Government should accept there's a legitimate role for the Electoral Commission," he said.

"Similarly, the UK Government could and should give ground on other issues, like votes for 16 and 17-year-olds.

"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."