Scotland could leave UK by 2016 as Salmond unveils Big Question

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond watches a short performance of Tam O Shanter involving primary schoolchildren at the Netherbow Theatre, The Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. PA
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond watches a short performance of Tam O Shanter involving primary schoolchildren at the Netherbow Theatre, The Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. PA
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SCOTLAND could leave the United Kingdom by 2016 under plans unveiled by Alex Salmond to ask voters a “straightforward” question on independence.

The First Minister launched the Scottish Government’s consultation on the £10m referendum yesterday, promising the question put to voters would be “short, straightforward and clear”.

The Scottish Government proposes asking Scots: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”.

If voters choose independence in the referendum, which is expected to take place in autumn 2014, the first elections in an independent Scotland could take place in May 2016.

Mr Salmond told MSPs the period in the run-up to the independence vote would be the “most exciting in Scotland’s modern history”. “At the end of that period, in autumn 2014, people the length and breadth of our country will have their say in Scotland’s independence referendum,” he said.

“Independence, in essence, is based on a simple idea: the people who care most about Scotland, that is the people who live, work and bring up their families in Scotland, should be the ones taking the decisions about our nation’s future.

“No-one else is going to do a better job of making Scotland a success. No-one else has the same stake in our future. The people of Scotland should be in charge.”

As well as the question on independence, Mr Salmond said the ballot could include the option of greatly-enhanced powers for Holyrood.

He argued if there was “wide support” for the so-called devo-max option, it was “only fair and democratic” it be included, but Ministers in Westminster have been cautious about offering voters an extra option as well.

While UK elections are traditionally held on a Thursday, the consultation raises the possibility of having the referendum on a Saturday to help boost turnout and the Scottish Government also proposes extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.

But Mr Salmond could find himself on collision course with opponents after suggesting the Electoral Commission could run the referendum but should be excluded from setting the question.

Labour’s Shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran stating: “At present, the Electoral Commission has to rule on the wording of the question on the ballot paper because it is a point of principle that it shouldn’t be for politicians alone to pick.

“Alex Salmond’s proposal to strip the Electoral Commission of its legal responsibility to rule on the question will fuel suspicion and is simply not acceptable.”

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said Scots both wanted and deserved a “fair, legal and decisive referendum, held as soon as possible”.

“What the First Minister posited today is a fair and decisive legal question, which I welcome,” she added. “What we now need to ensure is that it is asked in a legal referendum.”

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, who has cancelled talks with Mr Salmond planned for tomorrow after contracting chickenpox, said there was “much to welcome” in the Scottish Government’s consultation. “This is a good base to build on as we listen to the views of people across Scotland and further afield,” said Mr Moore.

The UK Government claims that Holyrood does not have the legal power to hold a binding referendum itself without Westminster’s approval and is consulting on temporarily extending powers to allow it to happen.

However, the two governments have been at odds over the question and the date of any vote.

A fairer Union would be worth fighting for: Page 13.