FROM a Scottish perspective it is difficult to see how the suggestion that Westminster should take control of the referendum on independence for Scotland can aid the Unionist cause.
Frustration in Whitehall that key issues, most importantly how many questions should be on the ballot paper, are still unresolved is apparently driving the idea that the UK Government should legislate to hold the independence referendum.
The charge that Alex Salmond is dragging his feet is unfair. He has said all along that his preferred date to hold the referendum is the autumn of 2014. David Cameron, after an initial attempt to set an earlier date, appeared relaxed about the SNP's timetable. The civil servants reportedly say the technical details must be pinned down by next spring if the necessary legislation is to meet the 2014 timetable. As yet, however, there is no good reason why that cannot be achieved.
The responses to the Scottish Government's consultation are due to be published in the autumn. It is reasonable to wait for the outcome of that exercise as the most comprehensive survey available of public opinion on contentious issues including the wording of the question, the inclusion of a second question and who should be eligible to vote.
The suggestion that the Section 30 Order required from the Westminster Parliament to enable the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum with legal force might be granted on condition there was only one question (yes or no to independence) on the ballot paper is a tactic that could misfire.
The political stakes are high but since both Coalition parties now have scant support in Scotland, they should recognise the folly of attempting to call the shots. It would also be wise to acknowledge the lengthy timescale has allowed civic society to debate the merits of independence versus the other options of increased powers or maximum devolution. These proposals are now provoking wider discussion and gaining coherence as part of a democratic process that has evolved considerably since the Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond crossed swords over the referendum in January.
If the SNP were to favour some date later than the autumn of 2014 as a result of the response to the consultation, the Coalition Government would have every justification in taking control of the process. To do so prematurely would risk sabotaging their own cause by increasing the vote for independence among the third of the electorate who currently favour increased powers for Holyrood short of independence.
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