FORMER Labour First Minister Henry McLeish last night branded the Union not fit for purpose as he distanced himself from Labour's stance on the independence referendum.

Mr McLeish's declaration puts him at odds with the calls from Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont for a cross-party alliance with the Tories and the LibDems and the pledge of her UK party leader, Ed Miliband, to join forces with David Cameron to save the UK.

Mr McLeish said: "Instead of saving the Union, the key objective must be to change it because, in my view, the Union is not fit for purpose."

The elder statesman's intervention comes as Alex Salmond claimed the Westminster Coalition had snubbed his invitation to talks over a referendum, which the First Minister this week set for the autumn of 2014.

Mr Salmond made the offer during a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the British Irish Council in Dublin.

It came after Mr Cameron had ignited the referendum debate with an offer to allow Holyrood to hold a referendum with certain conditions.

Downing Street instead urged Mr Salmond to speak to the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore. A source close to the First Minister said: "We believe [Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg] should have the good grace to resolve the conflict that they have created."

Mr McLeish told The Herald that pro-Union parties would ignore at their peril the question of Scottish identity.

He said that rather than talking about "devo max", a more effective concept would be an autonomous Scotland, with full fiscal and devolved powers but within the UK, because the status quo was unfit for purpose.

Mr McLeish warned his party against linking its campaign to the Tories, whom he branded toxic and the LibDems as dysfunctional.

Mr McLeish, who helped draft the Scotland Act, said his proposal reflected the country's identity and its aspirations, adding: "We care about the Union but we want to change it."

He said the Union's main backers refused to acknowledge change and were fighting bitterly against "any legitimate request or aspiration of parts of the UK to self-determination".

Turning to the prospect of an independent Scotland being banned from using the pound following comments by Chancellor George Osborne, Mr McLeish warned it was "part and parcel of a Conservative-inspired Westminster debate not just against independence but against Scotland".

He said: "The Conservatives, who are genuinely uninterested in the whole idea of devolution as their history has shown, will use fear and try to exploit ignorance."

He said they were "obsessed with central control and for some of them "Britishness" was increasingly about England, not the UK, and the struggle for power".

Mr McLeish said change was happening in countries all over the world so "why should anyone be surprised or shocked that it should happen in the UK? What the Tories don't get is the idea that this change is inevitable," he said.

He said that since the SNP first won power in 2007 there had been a significant shift from traditional class allegiances to "identity politics".

Mr McLeish claimed a negative pro-Union campaign "kicking Alex Salmond or the Nationalists or independence" would be counter-productive.

On Thursday, the Tories and LibDems backed a Holyrood motion by Ms Lamont calling for cross-party talks on the issue, and on Wednesday Mr Miliband threw his weight behind Mr Cameron's Unionist campaign.

Mr McLeish called on Labour to make clear that it stood for "progressiveness, the politics of a new Union, federalism, nationality and identity, diversity and difference, reform and renewal."

He said it needed to make clear the party is against, "populism, the politics of breakaway, large 'N' nationalism and independence, division and discord, uncertainty and insecurity".

He added: "These are the philosophical, constitutional and political differences at the heart of Scottish politics and should be [Labour's] base issues in any campaign."

Mr McLeish said Labour had to bring a new mindset to its referendum message.

His call for a fresh description of "devo max" reflected comments by Canon Kenyon Wright, one of the architects of devolution, in The Herald yesterday. He preferred the phrase "secure autonomy" to describe enhanced powers.

He also said attempts by Mr Cameron and others to block the "devo max" option were unacceptable.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "Civic Scotland is a central part of our nation, touching all sections of society, and its voice must be heard.

"We have already had important contributions from the voluntary sector, the STUC, and the Church of Scotland and there must be no more attempts to negate the views of civic Scotland in the crucial debate on Scotland's future."

Meanwhile, SNP MSP Joan McAlpine clashed with Labour's new deputy leader Anas Sarwar, after he led calls for her to be sacked as an aide to Mr Salmond over her suggestion the party was "anti-Scottish" in being against the referendum.

Yesterday, Ms McAlpine told BBC Radio: "I was criticising behaviour, I wasn't criticising people. People from all sorts of political backgrounds can be proud Scots."

Henry McLeish