LONDON // A referendum on independence for Scotland, potentially leading to a break-up of the United Kingdom, could be held as early as next year. The Scottish National Party (SNP), the ruling party in the Scottish parliament, will formally unveil plans on Thursday to table a bill in the upcoming session of the assembly that would lead to a referendum towards the end of 2010.
When news of the move emerged yesterday, the opposition Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties in Scotland, whose combined weight of MPs in the parliament could easily defeat the SNP, all came out against the proposal. However, there is feeling among some hardline opponents of independence north of the border, that the holding of a referendum might be no bad thing. They believe that if, as seems probable at the moment, independence were rejected by a majority of Scots, it would arm of the SNP for many years to come.
Wendy Alexander, then the leader of the ruling Labour Party, challenged the SNP last year to "bring it on" by holding a referendum. One political observer in Edinburgh said yesterday: "The fear among many mainstream politicians is that the SNP will put forward the referendum bill knowing that it will be defeated in the Scottish parliament. They are, after all, a minority administration. "That, in turn, will give the SNP yet more ammunition to say that the three, UK-wide parties are conspiring to prevent the will of the people being heard. It's heads we win, tails you lose for the SNP at the moment."
The latest opinion poll shows a dip in support for independence since the controversial release from prison of Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi this month. Al Megrahi, 57, who is terminally ill, was returned to his native Libya on compassionate grounds, bringing to an end his life sentence for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people. In a YouGov poll for the Daily Mail newspaper last week, only 28 per cent of respondents said they would vote in favour of independence, a drop of six per cent on the previous poll, while 57 per cent said they would vote no.
However, a spokesman for Alex Salmond, the SNP leader and first minister in the Scottish parliament, said: "The government's referendum bill will place the issue of Scotland's future, and the powers we need to succeed as a nation, at the heart of political and public debate. "The SNP government have the confidence to put the question fair and square in a referendum. And we are equally confident that people will choose independence and equality for Scotland."
Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, accepted that opponents of independence were in the majority in the Scottish parliament but remained optimistic that the bill would be passed. "It is for the people in Scotland to decide not for any one political party. I think the other political parties are going to find it difficult to be roadblocks to democracy," she told BBC Scotland. But George Foulkes, a senior Labour member of the Scottish parliament, rejected the bill as "a political gimmick as the SNP know they won't get it through. It's also a distraction from the real issues that matter."
Michael McMahon, Labour's business manager in the assembly, said: "Labour has called for a much more vigorous response to the recession, tough action to bring in mandatory sentences on knife crime and better protection for vulnerable children. "Instead, we are confronted with proposals for a referendum on independence that will cost Scotland jobs by creating more economic uncertainty." The Scottish Conservatives also said they would not support the referendum, while Mike Rumbles, the Liberal Democrats' chief whip, said: "It is further proof of the failure of the SNP's minority government."
A spokesman for the Scottish Greens said: "We are not opposed to a referendum. It is clearly time for the Scottish parliament to assume more powers." Constitutional experts predicted last night that, even if the Scots did vote in favour of independence, it would probably require new legislation to be passed by the UK parliament in London to make it legal. email@example.com