Alex Salmond makes offer on referendum talks

 

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has accused the UK Government of "bullying" Scottish voters over plans for an independence referendum but agreed to hold talks with David Cameron on the way forward.

After a week of friction between London and Edinburgh over the preparations for a national poll, the SNP leader offered to meet "in Edinburgh, in London or wherever" once he publishes proposals on January 25.

Just a few hours earlier Mr Salmond claimed Westminster was attempting to "intimidate" Scotland over the independence bid.

"Bullying and hectoring the Scottish people from London ain't gonna work," he said in a broadcast interview shortly before attending a British-Irish Council summit in Dublin.

"What we're seeing is the most extraordinary attempt to bully and intimidate Scotland by Westminster politicians."

But he struck a more conciliatory tone at a press conference at the end of the Council, which brings together representatives of national and devolved governments from across the British Isles, urging constructive talks "whatever our views on events of recent days".

He said: "What I have said to the Deputy Prime Minister, which I think is similar to what the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons, is that, once we've published the Scottish Government's consultation document, I am very happy to meet the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister in Edinburgh, in London or wherever to talk through these things in a positive way.

"Far better, whatever our views on events of recent days, that we can come to a constructive dialogue. I think that's what the people would expect and I think that can take us forward.

"Once we publish our proposals, perhaps some of the fears that people have will dissolve in the light of these proposals being published."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who also attended the summit, rejected the bullying claim, insisting the UK Government respected the Scottish Parliament's mandate to hold a referendum but was obliged to ensure that it was done legally.

He added: "That's why we have actually - far from intimidating or bullying anybody - we have actually said we will give to the Scottish Government, to clarify any legal ambiguities, the power to hold a referendum in a legally unambiguous manner."

Mr Clegg warned that voters were beginning to lose patience with the "endless mind-numbing debate" about process and legality and wanted answers to basic questions, such as what the move would mean for their currency and banks.

His official spokesman later said: "If this means that Alex Salmond is saying he is going to engage constructively and join the conversation, then we welcome that."

The offer of talks follows the UK Government's launch earlier this week of a consultation on proposals for devolving new powers to Holyrood to allow it to call a referendum - something Mr Cameron insists it does not currently have the legal power to do.

Mr Cameron has called for direct talks between the UK and Scottish governments as part of the consultation process, and Scotland Secretary Michael Moore has already written to Mr Salmond inviting him to take part in discussions.

Under Westminster's proposals a referendum could be held within 18 months on the single yes-or-no question of whether Scotland should become independent of the United Kingdom.

No date has been suggested for the poll, though ministers are prepared to set a deadline once the consultation ends on March 9.

Edinburgh wants to delay a poll until autumn 2014 and to leave open the possibility of a third "devo-max" option on the ballot paper, which would allow Scotland to take on greater self-determination in financial matters but remain part of the Union.

PA

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