IF Scottish Labour does not secure autonomy from Westminster Scotland will become independent, warned former first minister Henry McLeish yesterday.

"The danger is that we're like a limb of a tree," he said. "If we grow any further, if Westminster doesn't move, the limb will break off and Scotland will be independent.

"We're talking about more powers, but unless there's a vision for Scotland within the Union we'll run out of powers to transfer from Westminster and we'll be heading towards independence.

"Labour in Scotland needs to get it. The public have got it and we can appeal to them if we do the things that I have suggested."

McLeish, who was Labour First Minister in 2000, said Scottish Labour had to learn from First Minister Alex Salmond.

"Alex Salmond is able to get on with things without looking over his shoulder," he said. "He has been populist, and in a sense he has acted as the party of Scotland. We could be the party of Scotland; we could be the party of radical constitutionalism, and we could also replace populism with progressive centre-left politics. This is not Albert Einstein's area of study, this is common sense. Why we have been in denial for so long, I don't know."

More than a decade ago, McLeish said, Westminster raised concerns about the Scottish Executive rebranding itself unofficially as the Scottish Government.

He said: "I was First Minister when we decided to call ourselves a Scottish Government. That was greeted with some concern from Westminster, because how dare we call ourselves the Scottish Government when we were only an executive?"

He added: "In recent times, there's no doubt in my mind there has been a massive disconnect between MPs at Westminster and Scotland, and also the UK Labour Party in Scotland. It's very much a real issue and without it being resolved I think there will be further problems ahead."

McLeish said he had sympathy for Johann Lamont. "I feel a sadness, disappointment, that she has gone in this way.

"Clearly any political leader has to take some responsibility for the condition of the party but the way this has happened, the pressure she has been under, the getting rid of a general secretary without knowledge - no-one could accept this.

"On the other hand what we have got to probe is why on earth the UK Labour Party has been behaving in such a way? Even if they didn't care about Scotland, what they should care about is the number of MPs they will have to send to London in 2015 to make sure Ed Miliband is the prime minister. That should have shaken them to the foundations."

McLeish warned that if Scottish Labour did not manage to secure autonomy from Westminster, the country will face five years of Tory and Ukip rule, and urged Ed Miliband to step in and offer support.

"We have to show some humility now; we have to accept we have lost traction," McLeish said.

"We've lost ground and we have to say to the Scottish people we want to win that back. We have to try and make sure we maximise on the number of MPs we send to Westminster - if not, we will end up with the worst of all worlds which will be Farage and Cameron doing another five years.

"That's too much for Scots to contemplate and it's going to be tough but, on the other hand, Ed Miliband should know the crisis we face here and he should be willing to help out."

McLeish said he was open-minded about Lamont's successor but insisted Westminster had to be put firmly in second place.

"Westminster is in decline so anybody who wants the job has to change the mindset by putting Scotland first and Westminster actually a poor second."