Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, said yesterday that legislation for the two referendums was being given top priority by the new Labour government. The Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill will be published today and its Second Reading is planned for early next week.
Assuming the Bill is passed, voters in Scotland will be asked to say yes or no to two propositions: Do they want a Scottish Parliament, and do they want it to have power to vary income tax by up to 3p in the pound. Voters in Wales will simply be asked if they want a Welsh Senedd. No tax powers are proposed for Wales.
Devolution is likely to be one of the most contentious issues of this parliamentary session, but Tory threats of dogged opposition to home rule have paled in the face of Labour's thumping majority.
Mr Dewar said he was aware that the Tory-dominated House of Lords had been "rattling its sabres" over devolution for Scotland and Wales but he hoped peers would not block the Bill. "They will be very unwise to hold that up unnecessarily," he warned.
Though Mr Dewar would not set a precise date for the referendums, he hoped they would take place as soon as practicable, probably in early autumn. They could hardly be much later if, as is intended, a Scottish parliament is to be in being in 1999. Unlike Labour's last ill-fated devolution referendums of 1979, a simple majority of votes will carry the day, rather than a majority of those entitled to vote. "Fancy franchises are not on the agenda," Mr Dewar said.
Within the next few weeks a White Paper is to be published outlining the Government's plans for the Edinburgh Parliament so that Scots will know what they are voting on. The 129-member body will be elected by the additional member system and sit in the oval chamber of the Royal High School on Calton Hill for fixed four-year terms.
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, has consistently ducked questions on how the SNP will vote in the referendum, arguing that no decision could be made in advance of the White Paper.
The SNP will try to amend the Referendum Bill to include a question on independence - a move the Government is sure to resist. "Excluding the independence option is a denial of democracy," Mr Salmond said.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, will try and get the tax question dropped altogether. The party regards it as "anathema" as the taxation was an integral part of the Constitutional Convention drawn up by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, trade unions and churches as a blue-print for a Scottish Parliament.
Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the referendum was unnecessary because the vast majority of Scottish MPs were elected two weeks ago on a pro-devolution platform. "If ever the settled will of the Scottish people was made plain, it was then," he said.
The referendum presents a dilemma for Conservatives in Scotland whose former MPs stood on the staunchly anti-home rule policy dictated from Central Office and were wiped out. Pro-devolution Tories believe a parliament in Edinburgh offers an avenue for rebuilding the party and will be arguing for a fresh start at the Scottish Conservative conference in June.
Campaigners for a yes-yes vote in Scotland will hold a preliminary meeting in the Edinburgh parliament building on Saturday. The non-party Partnership for a Parliament group, shunned by Conservatives and Nationalists, has raised pounds 130,000 from unions and the business community in the hope that a single umbrella body can avoid the squabbling that broke out between disparate yes campaigns in 1979.