Scottish independence row rages on both sides of border

Gordon Brown and Wendy Alexander, Labour's leader in Scotland, have been taunted by political opponents over their split on whether Scotland should hold an early referendum on securing independence from the United Kingdom.

Ms Alexander was involved in fiery exchanges in the Scottish Parliament with Alex Salmond, First Minister in the Scottish National Party administration north of the border, who ridiculed the public rift between her and the Prime Minister. Mr Brown has declined to endorse her call for an early vote, which could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

She stuck to her guns, challenging Mr Salmond to speed the referendum planned for 2010 which is his party's long-standing goal. "We believe that Scotland deserves a choice sooner rather than later," said Ms Alexander. "I'm not the problem, the legislative timetable is not the problem. The First Minister is the problem when it comes to resolving this issue in the nation's interest."

A jubilant Mr Salmond retorted: "While I would not say Wendy Alexander is the only problem the Labour Party has, I think, quite convincingly after the last few days that she is not the answer." He added: "It is impossible for anyone outside the Labour Party – and I think most people in it – to take the Labour Party seriously after the last few days."

Although Labour members of the Scottish Parliament rallied behind their leader, there was dismay in London at her surprise call at the weekend for an early referendum, which has made it harder for Mr Brown to fight back after his party's crushing defeat in last week's local elections. One Labour MP described her as "a political suicide bomber" and some believe she will face pressure to resign.

Mr Brown's position is that a decision on a referendum should be taken after a commission on Scottish devolution reports, probably next year.

In a letter to Mr Brown yesterday, David Cameron accused him of "verbal gymnastics" and misleading people when he claimed in the House of Commons on Wednesday that Ms Alexander did not want a referendum now.

The Conservative leader told Mr Brown: "Anyone comparing what you have claimed, and what Wendy Alexander has repeated again this morning, will conclude that either you have been completely unclear and potentially misleading in your replies to my questions, or you have lost control of your party, or perhaps a combination of the two."

Mr Cameron said that because of the "open challenge" to Mr Brown's authority, the Prime Minister should make clear who speaks for the Labour Party on the issue of a Scottish referendum.

Mr Salmond, Scotland's First Minister since Labour was ousted from power in last year's elections to the Edinburgh Parliament, made clear that the SNP would not speed the referendum it promised for 2010 in its manifesto.

"If Wendy Alexander will allow us, I thought we would stick to what is in the SNP manifesto on pages eight and 15," he said. "Week after week, Wendy Alexander comes and demands that we stick to the SNP manifesto [and] attacks us for not doing so. Now she's telling us we shouldn't stick to the manifesto and the 2010 date."

Ms Alexander hit back with: "This is far too serious a matter to jest with. We believe that the uncertainty is damaging Scotland. I and my colleagues have therefore offered our support to bring this issue forward now."

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