Alex Salmond last night fired the starting gun for a "battle for Britain" as he announced plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014.
The SNP First Minister dismissed an attempt by David Cameron to resolve Scotland's future "sooner rather than later", claiming there was a backlash north of the border against the Prime Minister's "Thatcheresque" intervention. Accusing the Government of "trying to run the referendum by proxy," Mr Salmond said: "This has to be a referendum which is built in Scotland, made in Scotland, goes through the Scottish Parliament and is determined by the good sense of the Scottish people."
Mr Salmond said a 2014 plebiscite would allow the Scottish people to make a "considered" decision on the country's future. UK ministers suspect the date has been chosen because it is the year in which Scotland hosts the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup and which marks the 700 th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
The SNP insisted the party was "entirely confident" about its plans. But Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, told the Commons the Scottish Executive does not have the power to call such a referendum. Mr Moore, a Liberal Democrat, said the Government is prepared to change the law so the Scottish Parliament can hold a referendum. But the order could insist the vote takes place within 12 to 18 months and offer the Scottish people a straight choice between independence and remaining part of the UK. There is speculation the SNP plans to offer a third option with all powers except defence and foreign policy transferred to Edinburgh.
Mr Moore said: "It is essential that the referendum is legal, fair and decisive."
Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, said Mr Salmond's announcement was a "panicked response from a panicked First Minister".
An SNP spokesman said: "We reject the strings that are being attached."