by Andrew Osborn and Kylie Maclellan
Defeated Scottish nationalist chief Alex Salmond accused Britain’s political leaders on Sunday of tricking Scots out of independence after a dispute about how and when to give them more powers.
Salmond, who is stepping down as leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) after failing to persuade Scots to leave the United Kingdom, accused Britain’s three main political parties of winning last Thursday’s referendum by 55-45 percent by making a false promise of new powers.
“I think the vow was something cooked up in desperation for the last few days of the campaign and I think everyone in Scotland now realizes that,” said Salmond, referring to a pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders before the vote to rapidly expand Scottish autonomy in the event of a “No”.
“It is the people who were persuaded to vote no who were misled, who were gulled, who were tricked effectively,” Salmond told BBC TV, saying he thought the last-minute promise had swayed the referendum’s outcome.
If Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum pledged by Cameron in 2017, Salmond suggested that independence-minded Scots might push for another breakaway vote.
All three main parties are united in wanting to transfer new powers, over tax, spending and welfare, to Scotland. But with eight months before a national election, Cameron’s Conservatives have become embroiled in a rancorous row with the opposition Labour party about when and how that might happen.
The dispute overshadowed the start of Labour’s annual conference in Manchester, the last before next year’s national election, where leader Ed Miliband is hoping to shift the political debate onto his vision for a society where wealth and opportunity is shared more equally.
Instead, Miliband was forced to clarify his position on more powers for Scotland and found himself engaged in what many voters are likely to perceive as a grubby party political spat.
Cameron, under pressure from some of his own lawmakers who represent English constituencies and whose own electoral hopes are threatened by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), last Friday suddenly linked new powers for Scotland to agreeing new constitutional arrangements for the rest of Britain, including England, at the same time.
In particular, he said he wanted to stop Scots lawmakers voting on English issues in parliament, a matter he said should be the preserve of those representing English areas.
His promise reflected fears inside his party that Scotland, which already has its own parliament and a large measure of devolution, was set to be given greater autonomy and continue to receive greater funding per head than the rest of Britain whereas England, the largest part of the United Kingdom, was not in line to receive any concessions.
However, Labour, which has far fewer lawmakers in England than the Conservatives and could therefore lose its ability to get legislation through parliament if it was in government, has rejected Cameron’s linkage, raising the possibility that political squabbling could delay a new deal for Scotland.
Miliband said on Sunday Cameron had not raised the “English question” before he and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, signed the “vow” – a joint declaration with the British leader about granting new powers to Scotland.
“You know we’ve spent two years trying to keep our country together. Let’s have a proper constitutional convention, let’s look at these issues,” Miliband told BBC TV.
“Let’s not drive our country apart because David Cameron thinks it’s a sort of opportunity for him to do it.”
Cameron made it clear the dispute could resonate in the May 2015 general election, warning Miliband his reluctance to restructure voting arrangements in favor of England could backfire.
“The challenge to Labour and Ed Miliband is clear: either resolve this issue with us, or explain to the people of the rest of the UK why they shouldn’t have the same powers as we are rightfully devolving to the people of Scotland,” Cameron said in an article released on social media.
“Why, for instance, Scottish MPs should be able to vote to vary income tax rates in England, when the Scottish Parliament is going to be setting Scottish income tax rates in Scotland.”
Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, Cameron’s junior partner in the two-party coalition, urged an end to the row.
“We cannot allow an exciting new chapter of empowerment and constitutional renewal to be held hostage yet again by a Labour and Tory (Conservative) pre-election stand off,” he said.