Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Thursday, 3 September 2009 12:20 UK

Q&A: Independence referendum

Alex Salmond
The Scottish Government's referendum bill currently lacks enough parliamentary support

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has announced his government's plans for the coming year.

At the heart of the legislative plans will be a referendum on Scottish independence - but how will the minority SNP administration attempt to achieve its top goal?

What is the referendum all about?

Scottish independence is the beating heart of the Scottish National Party - all the work it's been doing in government since winning the 2007 Holyrood election has been winding up to a referendum.

Mr Salmond has always made it clear that such a significant issue must be put to the Scottish people, but, before that, must be approved by the Scottish Parliament, hence the Referendum Bill.

The SNP's policy has been to prove itself in government before staging the referendum in 2010, towards the end of the party's first term in power.

So will voters simply be asked whether they want independence?

It's nowhere near as simple as that.

Because the Scottish Parliament does, in itself, not have the authority to declare Scotland an independent country, a "Yes" vote in the referendum would mark the start of talks with the UK government.

Of course, if the Scottish people speak up for independence, it makes it very difficult indeed for Westminster ministers to say: "No, you can't have it."

The ballot paper question, as released by the SNP in March 2007, would read: "The Scottish Parliament should negotiate a new settlement with the British government, based on the proposals set out in the white paper, so that Scotland becomes a sovereign and independent state."

The responses would be "Yes I agree" or "No I disagree". There is also the issue of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. More on that later.

The Scottish Government still has a far bigger mountain to climb first.

What's that?

In a nutshell, there is not currently enough parliamentary support to pass the bill.

The SNP is one of only two parties in the Scottish Parliament to support independence. The other is the Greens - who only have two MSPs. Independent Margo MacDonald is also in favour.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at Holyrood all oppose the policy. This means that, as it currently stands, the Referendum Bill would be defeated.

The opposition argues that because pro-union parties form the majority of MSPs at Holyrood, most voters, by association, do not support independence.

The SNP simply points out that it won the election, so independence is a popular policy.

The previous Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander, famously announced her "bring it on" policy, where she offered to support a Referendum Bill on the condition it was brought forward immediately. She later resigned as leader and the strategy was never spoken of again - not by Labour anyway.

The Nationalists say that if the opposition parties are so sure of a rejection of independence, then they should be putting their money where their mouths are and backing the Referendum Bill.

Are there any alternatives to independence on the radar at the moment?

There is currently a lot of debate around more powers for the Scottish Parliament, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The SNP, naturally, are big fans of more powers - but so are Liberal Democrats, to the exclusion of independence.

Mr Salmond has floated the idea of including a question on more powers in the referendum, but the Lib Dems say this is a red herring - a ploy to win enough support to pass the bill in parliament.

How does the SNP get round all this?

Alex Salmond has embarked on a canny strategy of warning opposition party MSPs that if they deny the Scottish people the right to a say on Scotland's constitutional future, they will have to explain that to the voters who gave them their jobs when the next Holyrood election arrives.

And, if the referendum bill was defeated, independence would probably become the defining issue of the next Scottish election campaign.

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