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SNP denied support for referendum- Financial Times

Andrew Bolger, Financial Times, 1 December 2009

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The prospect of a Scottish referendum on independence next year has sharply receded after opposition parties scorned a challenge to put their own question on the ballot paper.

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The minority Scottish National party government on Monday published a 176-page white paper outlining its case for a referendum next year, but the hostility of the three main opposition parties at Holyrood means it lacks the votes to pass the required legislation. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, said the SNP’s only demand was that the referendum should have an independence option – beyond that, he was “totally flexible”.

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He said the opposition parties could propose a question endorsing the Calman Commission, which suggested limited additional powers for the Scottish parliament, or a version of “devolution max”, with greater fiscal autonomy.

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In Edinburgh on St Andrews Day, Mr Salmond said: “It’s time for the people to have their say on Scotland’s future.”

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He also said the recent economic turmoil had demonstrated the limits of devolution, since the Scottish government had been restricted in the amount of capital spending projects it could bring forward to help offset the recession.

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The SNP leader warned the other parties that they would have to answer at the next Holyrood elections in 2011 if they refused to let the people speak.

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But Iain Gray, Scottish Labour leader, dismissed the white paper as “a multimillion-pound white elephant”. “Alex Salmond is out of touch with Scotland. All recent polls show the great majority of Scots don’t want to break up Britain and now is not the time for a referendum,” he said.

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Mr Gray called the SNP leader’s intention to add another question to a multi-option referendum a sign of desperation, and that “‘devo max is just independence-lite”. No matter how much he tried, Mr Salmond “will not be able to con the electorate”, he said.

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Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, said the referendum bill was a waste of resources on something that the people of Scotland clearly did not want. “Time after time the first minister has been told that his bill will not be passed by the Scottish parliament. Unless he ditches his misguided attempts to hold a referendum then Alex Salmond’s political judgment will come into serious question,” she said.

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The SNP, which has 47 MSPs, needs the support of the two pro-independence Greens and 16 other members to gain a majority for the referendum.

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But that appears unobtainable after Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, ruled out supporting a referendum before the next elections.

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The SNP’s white paper came days after the UK government proposed more responsibility for Holyrood after the Calman review.

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The plans included the power to vary the rate of income tax by up to 10p in the pound and responsibility for drink-drive and speed limits. None of these would be implemented until after the next UK election.

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Reform Scotland, a pro-business think-tank, said talk of a referendum should not be allowed to overshadow Holyrood’s need for greater financial power.

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