Voting for a New Britain: Labour offers deal on independence

SCOTLAND WOULD vote in a referendum on independence before the millennium if the nationalists won next week's election, it was revealed yesterday.

Labour's campaign managers said Tony Blair would be forced to hold "divorce" talks with the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, almost immediately. They suggested Mr Salmond might fly to London on 7 May, the day after the elections for Scotland's new parliament, to open talks with the Prime Minister on the issue.

Speaking on a Scottish BBC political programme, Mr Salmond appeared to move from earlier suggestions that an independence referendum would not take place for three or four years.

"If we win an overall majority there'll be six months for negotiations, then a referendum as soon as possible.

"If we are not in the position of an overall majority but emerge as the leading party, then the precise commitment is to hold a referendum within the four-year term of the parliament," Mr Salmond said.

The SNP would have to delay its referendum if it was the largest party in a hung parliament because it would be forced to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who do not favour independence.

As Labour seized on the revelation as evidence that the SNP had been less than frank with voters, it appeared to make its own admission. The party's campaign manager, Douglas Alexander, said negotiations on the issue could not be avoided if the SNP won the election. "We would be in a situation where the SNP would not be spending their time developing plans for Scotland but would be on planes to London talking about independence. Of course there would be negotiations.

"The SNP would want to start negotiations for independence immediately. I cannot in detail describe what would be the position of the Labour government in a situation where there is great uncertainty," he said.

The SNP said that while its manifesto did not talk about holding a referendum within six months, it had mentioned the possibility before in policy documents. Its chief executive, Michael Russell, said he was delighted that Labour was now prepared to speculate publicly on the possibility that the nationalists might win a majority of seats. "What is certainly the case is that more and more people will be talking about the SNP winning this election between now and next Thursday.

"The issue of independence will not be decided in an election campaign - Scottish or British - but by the people in a referendum. The fact that London Labour now agrees with us on the process of independence means we can welcome them to the mainstream democratic position in Scotland - and all thanks to wee Dougie Alexander," he said.

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