Swords are crossed before debate on Scottish devolution

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Labour and the Scottish National Party clashed yesterday over the issue of Scottish devolution as party leaders set out their policies ahead of a key television debate on Britain's constitutional future next month.

George Robertson, the shadow Scottish secretary, bitterly condemned the SNP's plans for Scottish independence as "a recipe for chaos and turmoil" that threatened Britain's economic prosperity. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, called Labour's plans for a devolved assembly in Edinburgh "a confidence trick".

The two men were writing in the Scotsman newspaper, which will host a televised debate on Britain's constitution next month. The "Great Debate", the first face-to-face public exchange between Mr Robertson and Mr Salmond north of the border, will set the tone for the ideological battle over Britain's constitution, which John Major has identified a key issue in the run-up to the next general election.

Conservatives believe Labour's commitment to establish a Scottish parliament, alongside devolved assemblies in England and Wales, will prove deeply unpopular among voters both north and south of the border.

Earlier this week, Mr Major warned that Labour's plans would cause "immense damage to the people of Scotland. . . and, above all, to everyone throughout the United Kingdom". Labour is convinced that its proposals to establish a parliament in the Scottishcapital - with an executive body responsible for implementing uniquely Scottish policies on education, health, the law, local government, the police, prisons, transport, agriculture, housing, the arts and environment - will prove a vote-winner. In the Scotsman yesterday, Mr Robertson said Scots were "discontented with the remote smugness and arrogance of ... the Tory-created system of centralised government by quangos and cronies".

Labour, he went on, "promises, and will deliver, a Scottish parliament that empowers Scots to bring Scottish inventiveness and Scottish knowledge to bear on Scottish problems ... those who oppose that aim are no friends of Scotland or the Scots".

Mr Salmond, buoyed by recent election results showing record support for the nationalists, dismissed Mr Robertson's arguments as misleading. Labour's proposed Scottish parliament would be little more than ``a souped-up local authority" with no say over vital areas of policy including defence, the welfare state, foreign affairs and economic policy. It was "a confidence trick, aimed at saving the Union by buying off Scotland with a mess of administrative pottage".

Mr Salmond argued that independence for Scotland in Europe, like Sweden and Switzerland, was a "clear and positive solution". The Scotsman debate in Edinburgh on 12 February will be broadcast by the BBC.