Scotland clashes with London over independence vote
LONDON: Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond fuelled a tense constitutional clash with London on Wednesday, insisting that his government can organise its own independence referendum in 2014.
London announced on Tuesday it would give Edinburgh legal powers to hold a vote on a break-up of the 300-year-old union, but said it would be unlawful unless done with London’s approval of the timescale and conditions.
But Salmond — a nationalist who is widely regarded as one of the sharpest political operators in the British Isles — has announced plans for Scotland to hold its own referendum in the autumn of 2014, on its own terms.
The issue could eventually end up at the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court.
Salmond, whose Scottish National Party last year won the first majority in the Edinburgh assembly since it opened in 1999, said there was a mandate for the Scottish parliament to organise and hold the referendum on its own.
“It must be a referendum built in Scotland and decided by the Scottish people,” Salmond told BBC radio.
He indicated however that he was ready to strike a deal if Prime Minister David Cameron’s government recognised it was lawful for the Scottish parliament to hold the referendum.
Cameron’s Downing Street office also appeared to soften its stance on Wednesday, with a spokesman saying Cameron would absolutely take part in discussions with all parties including the SNP in coming weeks.
Scotland was an independent nation until 1707 when the Acts of Union of united it with England and Wales, although both countries had shared the same monarch since 1603.
Polls currently show a lack of support for independence among Scots, but Salmond is trying to tap nationalist sentiment as 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scottish victory over the English.
In the same year, Scotland also hosts the Commonwealth Games in its biggest city Glasgow and golf’s Ryder Cup.
Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wants the vote to be held as soon as possible and on its own terms, in a bid to keep the United Kingdom together.
In its statement on Tuesday it did not set out the conditions it wanted but reports say it would seek a simple yes/no question on independence, whereas Salmond’s spokesman said he was open to a third independence-lite option.
Cameron said at the weekend that uncertainty over the issue was harming the Scottish economy.
Former finance minister Alistair Darling, himself a Scot, said he believed the pro-union campaign would win if his Labour party worked with the coalition.
“The only reason we have been put off until 2014 is because Alex Salmond doesn’t think he can win just now and he is playing for time,” he told the BBC.
In Scotland, The Scotsman newspaper ran the front-page headline “1,000 days to decide our future”.
It also ran a piece by an expert on referendums, Matt Qvortrup, saying that Salmond’s arguments were correct, citing the examples of Montenegro’s secession from Serbia in 2006 and Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
“The basic principle in international law is that the seceding country (in this case Scotland) decides whether it wants to become independent,” he said.
A survey by British Future, an independent think-tank, said Monday that 54 per cent of Scots wanted Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, compared to 29 per cent in favour of independence. It polled 497 people last month.
The Scottish parliament currently has power on matters such as education, health, the environment and justice. Key areas including foreign affairs and defence are still controlled by the British government in London.
A break-up would involve thorny economic issues such as North Sea oil and gas. Scotland has long complained that tax revenues from the industry — £8.8 billion (RM45.35 billion) last year — go direct to London.
But there is also the issue of a currency, with Salmond refusing to say whether an independent Scotland would join the struggling euro.