After four days of heated argument about the complex process of holding a referendum on Scottish independence, unionists are finally starting to get the debate they have been wanting to have for a while: about the substance of what independence means.

At first, Westminster politicians seemed to have been outmanoeuvred (again) by Alex Salmond, getting drawn into a row over the timing of a referendum and what questions would be asked – allowing the Scottish leader to depict them as interfering in Scottish politics.

Now, they are beginning to put him on the spot, asking the kinds of difficult questions they think will guarantee that the Scottish people will not vote for independence when they eventually get the chance to do so. Read more

Alex Salmond with David CameronMichael Moore, the Scottish secretary, will address MPs at 4.30pm today to explain why the Westminster government is offering Alex Salmond the chance to hold a legally-binding referendum on Scottish independence.

Ostensibly, the answer is that government legal advice says that any “consultative” referendum could be open to challenge in the courts. But there is another, political reason. If Westminster offers the power to have a referendum, it can also tie in certain conditions.

The two things unionists want to stop are:

  1. Salmond delaying the referendum until 2014 or later, by which time the first minister might have built up a sense of unstoppable momentum and;
  2. A third option appearing on the ballot, dubbed “devolution max”, which might appeal to those nervous about full independence.

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Amid the Labour-dominated headlines this morning on the first day of the party’s autumn conference in Liverpool, something else caught my eye. The Independent on Sunday had a story about David Cameron tackling Alex Salmond head on. It read:

David Cameron is to go head to head with Alex Salmond in a bitter battle over the future of the union between England and Scotland.

The Government is to fight what it sees as “outrageous” claims and increasingly aggressive moves towards complete self-rule from the Scottish First Minister in a desperate attempt to stop Scotland from “sleepwalking into independence”.

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One of the many curious findings from tonight’s ComRes poll (for the Sunday Mirror and the Independent on Sunday) is that 38 per cent of people in Scotland want independence, a figure not far off the 46 per cent who don’t.

That is higher than the “third” figure usually cited in recent days. The poll suggests an uncomfortably thin margin for those who want the Scots to remain part of the United Kingdom. (ComRes found that only 32 per cent of English people wanted a schism). This sample is relatively small but other surveys will be closely watched in the coming months.

As Alex Salmond said last week:

“I wouldn’t put too much confidence in opinion polls – a month ago they said the SNP were 15 per cent behind the Labour party.”

The survey seems to contradict a similar poll in the Sun last week, suggesting that 29 per cent of Scots wanted independence for Scotland while 41 per cent of other Britons did. Read more