Alex Salmond used his set-piece opening speech to the Scottish Parliament today to warn the Prime Minister not to impose conditions on Scotland over the independence referendum.
Scotland’s First Minister unveiled the 15 pieces of legislation he intends to pass over the next year but made it clear the centrepiece of his legislative programme would be a Bill paving the way for a referendum on independence in the autumn of 2014.
Mr Salmond said the Bill, which will be introduced in the Spring of next year and is expected to be passed by the summer, would give Scots the chance to decide their own future.
The First Minister conceded that the details still had to be agreed with the UK Government – which is the only institution to hold the legal right to hold such a poll.
But, in a clear warning to David Cameron not to dictate terms to the Scottish Government, Mr Salmond insisted that the referendum had to be made by “the people who choose to live and work in Scotland”.
The First Minister referred to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum which generated 26,000 responses, the results of which will be published next month.
And he said: “I expect to meet the Prime Minister in the next few weeks to conclude the discussions which our respective ministers have been having over the summer.
“However, the fact that our response rate was almost ten times that of the UK Government’s consultation – which was not subject to any independent analysis – does underline one point: the people of Scotland recognise that Scotland’s referendum should be made here in Scotland.”
Mr Salmond is aware that there remain several outstanding issues which have to be resolved before the UK Government hands over the legal authority to hold the referendum to the Scottish Government.
The most important is the question on the ballot paper: Mr Salmond wants two questions, one on independence and one on more powers for the parliament while Mr Cameron is determined there should be only one – on independence.
The two governments have also yet to agree on the franchise and the timetable – Mr Salmond wants to allow 16 and 17 year olds the vote and wants to hold the poll on October 18 2014.
However, sources on both sides have indicated that the UK Government will probably concede on both the timetable and the franchise but UK ministers refuse to budge on the number of questions.
If, as expected, Mr Salmond agrees to have just a question on independence then a deal can be done in the next six weeks.
However, if the two sides cannot agree in the next few weeks, then both are aware that there may not be enough time to pass the order handing over legal responsibility for the referendum to the Scottish Parliament in time to hold the referendum in 2014.
And, if that happens, Mr Salmond may well hold his own referendum without the go-ahead of Westminster. That would give him the chance to ask whatever question or questions he likes – but would open him up to legal challenge.
It was with this as the background that Mr Salmond made it clear yesterday that he expected Westminster to concede to his demands.
He declared: “No sane person would want powers over our universities, our health service or our police to be returned to Westminster.
“But if we can manage those services more effectively than the UK Government, why shouldn’t we also have control over pensions, welfare and our own voice in the world?”
Most of the other 14 Bills unveiled by Mr Salmond at Holyrood today were fairly uncontentious, except one.
The First Minister made it clear that the Scottish Government would legislate in the next year to legalise same sex marriage – despite the vociferous opposition of the Catholic Church and other faith groups in Scotland.
He insisted it would “strike a balance” between the rights of same-sex couples to get married and the rights of churches and faith groups to refuse to take part in a same-sex ceremony.
“I my view, this is the appropriate way to respect religious and private beliefs, while ensuring equality of treatment before the law,” he said.
Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, responded by deriding the legislative programme, claiming it was “radical only in Alex Salmond’s ambition to change his title from First Minister to Prime Minister”.
While Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said the programme for government was “dominated by one thing and one thing only – the Scottish Government’s obsession with pulling apart the United Kingdom”.