ALEX Salmond last night defied Westminster to clear the way for Scotland to meet its date with destiny.

The First Minister dramatically announced that an independence referendum would be held in the autumn of 2014, despite threats of legal action from Scottish Secretary Michael Moore.

The move came as the row raged between Holyrood and London over the legality of a referendum called by the Scottish Government and followed an attempt by Westminster to force the SNP into a referendum within 18 months.

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Speaking at his official residence, Bute House in Edinburgh, Mr Salmond described the referendum as "the most important decision in Scotland in 300 years" and revealed his Cabinet had finalised a three-month public consultation plan which details the process leading up to the historic vote.

He added: "That goes into enormous detail because we have been thinking about it for some considerable time. It shows, for example, that the date we should hold this referendum is the autumn of 2014.

"That is the date that allows everything to be put in the proper manner and, in this most important decision in Scotland for 300 years, the date will allow people to hear all of the arguments and make sure all the parliamentary processes are complete so that Scots, who will be the ultimate arbiter of all this, can make the right decision for the future of the country."

Mr Salmond's announcement came little more than an hour after Mr Moore announced a Westminster-led consultation on a referendum.

He told MPs it was the UK Government's "clear view" the power to hold a referendum was reserved to Westminster and Holyrood could not authorise one on its own.

He added: "The consultation paper I am publishing today sets out different ways to deliver a legal, fair and decisive referendum.

"It explains how the powers for a referendum could be devolved under the Section 30 order-making provisions in the Scotland Act 1998 – our preferred approach.

"Given the clear legal problem that exists, we want to work with the Scottish Government to provide the answer.

"This is not about the mandates of Scotland's two governments, or who calls the shots. It is about empowering the people of Scotland to participate in a legal referendum.

"That means that the UK Government is willing to give the Scottish Parliament the powers to hold a referendum which it otherwise cannot do legally."

Mr Moore said the UK Government was not suggesting a date for the poll in its consultation but it would recommend a single yes or no question rather than a third option of so-called devolution max, which would lead to greater powers being granted to Holyrood but stop short of full independence.

Mr Salmond claimed the Scottish Secretary's announcement was a climbdown, adding: "I thought the tone of Michael Moore was light years away from the disastrous attempt by the Tory Prime Minister to dictate to Scotland what we can and cannot do.

"If all Westminster was saying was 'there is a legal doubt about this, so here is the power under Section 30 so you can organise the referendum' then that would be fine. What Scotland objects to is all the strings they are trying to attach to this, trying to run the referendum by proxy."

However, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said that Mr Salmond had been bounced into his announcement.

She said: "It is rather sad that a First Minister of Scotland keeps his plans for the constitutional future of our nation secret, doesn't tell the Scottish Parliament, but goes on TV because a debate at Westminster might keep him out of the headlines.

"We deserve better. This is about the future of Scotland, not the profile of Alex Salmond. This issue deserves calm consideration – not a panicked response from a panicked First Minister."

She added: "We need to know there will be just one question, what that question is, and that the Electoral Commission will administer it. The First Minister should hold cross-party talks – including all quarters of civic Scotland – to discuss these details, including the date."

Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: "Decisive action by the UK Government has forced his hand. We can discuss times and dates as part of the consultation, but the key issues for me are what is the question and who is the referee? Alex Salmond should be embracing the offer of more powers to hold a proper, real referendum. We are offering a fair, legal and decisive vote. Why wouldn't Alex Salmond want that?"

LibDem Holyrood leader Willie Rennie said: "Announcing autumn 2014 as high-noon in the fight to protect Scotland's future as part of the UK family doesn't address the issue of ensuring the Scottish people decide the outcome, not the courts."

Fellow LibDem Sir Menzies Campbell, who is chairing a party's commission into developing home rule, said: "If there are those who are so confident of the case for independence why is it they are unwilling to countenance a referendum now?

"Could it be the bravehearts are no longer quite so brave as they have been before?"

A Coalition source said: "We are looking to resolve a problem, not create one. We are offering to give Salmond for the first time a legal route to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. He has to decide whether to accept it or be in the extraordinary position of turning it down. This is a genuine offer."

Extended coverage

Westminster: Flag-bearers in battle for Scotland's future

Reaction: First Minister is branded a 'roadblock to referendum' as Cameron faces backlash

Analysis: Stakes are high and things may soon get nasty

Ian Bell: Unionists need more than fear and mumbo-jumbo