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Cameron's anti-independence plot bound to backfire

A pre-emptive referendum on independence will only increase the SNP's chance of success.

David Cameron yesterday accused Alex Salmond of being a "big feartie"- an old Scots term meaning 'scared' - for refusing to set a date for a referendum on Scottish independence.

Speaking at a Scots Night event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Cameron said the SNP leader was guilty of "endlessly trying to create grievance between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom" in order to leverage support for his plan to break-up Britain. In an interview with the BBC, the Prime Minister also declined to rule out unilaterally holding a vote on Scotland's constitutional status unless the Scottish Government was more active in bringing forward its referendum proposals.

This idea has been floating around since the SNP won an unprecedented majority at the Holyrood elections in May and appears to be gathering cross-party support.

Last week, Shadow Scotland Secretary Ann McKechin and Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy indicated that they were not averse to a Westminster poll on the grounds that ongoing constitutional 'uncertainty' was damaging Scotland's economic recovery. In the House of Lords, Tory peer Michael Forsyth and Labour peer George Foulkes have each tabled separate amendments to the Scotland Bill which, if successful, would make London solely responsible for instigating a poll.

Technically speaking, the Forsyth and Foulkes amendments are entirely unnecessary: in its current form the devolution settlement does not allow the Scottish Parliament to hold legally binding referendums. But the fact that senior Westminster figures are exploring the possibility of "calling Salmond's bluff"in this manner suggests a rising sense of panic in the Unionist camp. It also reveals that leading Unionists haven't seriously considered the likely effects of such a move.

One of the reasons the SNP has been so successful in recent years is because it has cast itself as the 'National Party of Scotland', rather than just the Scottish National Party. At the May election, this strategy resulted in nationalist breakthroughs in Labour's Glasgow and central-belt heartlands, as well as in traditionally Liberal Highland constituencies. The SNP even managed to win a majority of first-past-the-post seats in affluent, small-c conservative Edinburgh, despite the fact the capital has never been very receptive to the nationalist movement.

Another aspect of Salmond's bid for national dominance has been his relentless promotion of the idea that sovereignty ultimately lies with the Scottish people, not with the Westminster parliament. In a small country with a communitarian tradition and a history steeped in the 'democratic intellect', this carries huge resonance. As such, any attempt by the Tories to impose a referendum on Scotland will only re-enforce the popular impression, cultivated during the Thatcher years, that London is belligerent and dismissive when to comes to Scottish opinion. This would in turn greatly increase the likelihood of a Yes vote.

Finally, it shouldn't be forgotten that neither Labour nor the Conservatives have a mandate to stage a pre-emptive ballot on independence. Although Labour comfortably won the Westminster election in Scotland last year, they did so as a party militantly opposed to the staging of any vote on secession at all. Only the SNP can claim to have the consistently campaigned for and supported the right of Scots to decide for themselves. A sudden, coordinated reversal of policy by the Unionist parties would look cynical, not to mention desperate.