THE Scottish Liberal Democrat leadership yesterday saw off a grassroots revolt against the refusal to countenance a second question in the independence referendum calling for extended devolution.

Denis Mollison, a delegate from East Lothian, had claimed the party would pay a heavy price for insisting on a straight yes or no to independence, telling the conference in Inverness they were "in danger of being dragged into negativity".

At a fringe meeting on Saturday it became clear a significant number of LibDems would like to see a Home Rule option short of independence as a choice in the referendum, but when Mr Mollison submitted this as a topical motion senior party figures were successful in urging delegates to reject it.

The motion called on the leadership "to engage with the Scottish Government so as to get the option of Home Rule included in the referendum in a fair way," to run a "positive campaign in favour" of this option and to back the Scottish Government in seeking to give 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in all ballots, including the referendum.

But party president and Gordon MP Malcolm Bruce described the motion as "a naive response" and described Alex Salmond as the most "brutal, cynical manipulator in British politics". He said: "You would be playing into the hands of Salmond, handing him a get out of jail free card. He loses this referendum, he goes. Do we want him to stay?" Delegates yelled "no".

Mr Bruce had earlier likened an independent Scotland to South Sudan and other emergent nations, saying: "It was a sobering list of countries like Republic Srpska, South Ossetia, Kashmir, Basque Region, Catalonia, Chechnya, Greenland, North Cyprus, Transnistria."

He questioned why the SNP would wish to "disassociate" Scotland from UK institutions such as the BBC, the World Service and the Department of International Development which employs 500 people in Scotland.

He said: "Do we really want the world to break up into a growing list of tiny countries nursing their grievances through the international community?

"Before you consider the economically uncertain world in which we live and in which the SNP want to cut Scotland adrift, this is the confused international background we face.

"It is quite extraordinary that we should be considering cutting historic ties and launching ourselves into this maelstrom."

Argyll and Bute MP Alan Reid said Alex Salmond was simply seeking to muddy the waters and compared him to Stalin: "It's not who votes that count, but who counts the vote."

Alex Cole-Hamilton, who contested Edinburgh Central constituency in May said the First Minister had created "half-baked measures of smoke and mirrors" and urged rejection of the motion. But Galen Milne warned: "You are going to be seen to be denying people the chance to vote in favour of something which a majority support."

Mr Mollison, summing up in favour of his motion, said: "I want us to adopt a positive, distinctive position. Refusing to accept a second question on Home Rule is cutting off our nose to spite our face."

His motion – which noted "the party's long-standing commitment to Home Rule and a federal UK, the only major party in Scotland with such commitments" – was voted down in spite of his pleas. The leadership insisted that rejection of independence had to come first in a straight yes-no referendum and only then could there be a move towards a greater measure of Home Rule.