Salmond opens door for 'third way' to keep independent Scotland within UK

The SNP leader introduces 'Devolution Max' option, but leaves Westminster in no doubt that Scots will decide their destiny

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Westminster politicians were warned yesterday to stay out of the argument over Scotland's future, as the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, pledged that only Scottish voters had the right to decide whether the nation stays in the United Kingdom.

Mr Salmond told party members at their conference that he would campaign "four-square" for independence at a referendum on the subject expected within three years.

But in a significant concession, made publicly for the first time, he said Scots could be given a third option of "Devolution Max", offering Scotland greater powers over their own government and economy, while remaining in the UK.

Faced with claims that Westminster was planning to take control of the referendum preparations, Mr Salmond made it clear he planned to fight the campaign on his own terms. Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers believe that imposing a simple "yes/no" choice on the referendum would make a vote for independence less likely.

But Mr Salmond, who quoted the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell to underline Scotland's "claim of right", told the SNP audience in Inverness: "No politician, certainly no London politician, will determine the future of the Scottish nation.

"The Prime Minister should hear this loud and clear: the people of Scotland are now in the driving seat. The days of Westminster politicians telling Scotland what to do and what to think are over."

The Scottish government will stage an independence referendum towards the end of the current five-year parliament. Mr Salmond, trying to drive home his advantage in his first conference as the leader of a majority administration in Scotland, said the move would help Scotland "flourish like never before".

The Holyrood government has come under fire from opponents, who say the party is delaying the referendum because it is scared of losing. They also say the SNP's tacit support for full fiscal responsibility under "Devo Max" is a "failsafe option" for the party, which would deliver more powers for Scotland even if voters rejected full independence. Observers claimed Mr Salmond was making a political move to ensure he was not outflanked by his opponents.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: "This referendum is not going to simply be an independence referendum. It is about Scotland's constitutional future. If the SNP does not claim ownership of 'Devolution Max', there is a danger other parties will."

Acknowledging the attraction of "Devo Max", Mr Salmond described the greater powers it offered as "all good, all necessary, but not good enough" – as it would leave Trident missiles on the river Clyde, and exclude Scotland from "the councils of Europe and the world". Only independence would stop these things happening, he said, "which is why this party will campaign four-square for [it] in the coming referendum."

The first minister then trained his fire on the Westminster politicians who have targeted him in an attempt to prevent a "drift" towards independence. Mr Salmond branded the UK government's Scotland group a "cabinet sub-committee to attack Scottish independence".

He said: "Let's get this right. Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander sit in a committee, working out how to do Scotland down – and they engage in this while the European monetary system teeters on the brink of collapse, while the jobless total in England is at a 20-year high and inflation more than double its target."

Mr Salmond also accused the coalition of cutting £1bn from the Scottish budget to reduce the deficit and of reaping the benefits of North Sea oil. He said Westminster had "coined in" £300m from Scottish waters, quoting figures suggesting another £230bn was available over the next 40 years.

"London has had its turn out of Scottish oil and gas," he said, adding: "Let the next 40 years be for the people of Scotland."