March 4, 2012 11:48 pm

Tone of Scotland debate raises concerns

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The debate over Scottish independence is in danger of being drowned out by a small but vocal minority of nationalist supporters, the Scotland secretary has warned.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Michael Moore said he was worried that a constructive conversation was being stifled by anti-unionists who threw vitriolic abuse at anyone who disagreed with them.

His comments highlighted the concern among pro-union politicians over how to confront the nationalist campaign as momentum builds behind first minister Alex Salmond’s push for a referendum on independence.

“There are worrying signs that if you enter the debate, you quickly get shouted down,” Mr Moore said. “We have to make sure that this noise doesn’t crowd out the debate.”

Some pro-union MPs have complained about being a target for “cyber-nats” who bombard them with emails and leave aggressive messages on online noticeboards.

But Mr Moore said he was less concerned about the effect on politicians than the rest of Scottish society, which was at risk of being pushed out of the debate.

He pointed to the experience of Linda Urquhart, a senior Scottish lawyer, who was accused of “blundering into the constitutional debate” by the Scottish National party when she suggested delaying the referendum would be bad for business. Mr Moore, a Liberal Democrat, called such tactics “unconscionable”.

At their Scottish conference over the weekend, Liberal Democrat leaders vowed to work with Mr Salmond’s SNP to devolve more power to Edinburgh if Scots voted No to independence.

Mr Moore has published a timetable for a 2013 referendum to counter the date of 2014 being promoted by the SNP.

The Scotland secretary and David Cameron are engaged in negotiations with Mr Salmond about the details of a referendum. Mr Moore denied Mr Salmond’s claims that Westminster was moving in the SNP’s direction, however, saying that Holyrood’s acceptance that it needed legal powers from the UK government to hold a ballot at all showed the opposite was true.

Galashiels fears

In Michael Moore’s constituency in the Scottish Borders, the intrigues in the Holyrood parliament 30 miles away seem almost as remote as those in Westminster, a six-hour journey away.

The Galashiels town crest commemorates the slaughter of a band of English soldiers in 1337 and residents gather once a year to celebrate Robert Burns and his poem about the town, “Braw Lads o’ Galla Water”. Yet economic concerns trump national pride in the town. “Britain’s broken anyway,” says Bob Pearson, 21, who is unemployed. “I don’t see what difference independence would make. It would be better to keep the currency and the army, so we might as well stay part of the UK.”

In a public debate that has become bitter, with unionist politicians trying to take on the SNP directly, Mr Moore did not rule out refusing to let an independent Scotland use the pound, as has been hinted at by George Osborne, the chancellor. But he added that it had not been raised within the cabinet, adding: “It is not our business to be issuing threats.”

Mr Moore denied the claims of Ian Davidson, Labour chairman of Westminster’s Scottish affairs committee, that the offer of more powers being devolved if voters rejected independence had confused the debate.

Despite the unpopularity of the Conservative party north of the border, Mr Moore insisted Mr ­Cameron’s recent visit to Edinburgh to make the union case had helped the cause.

However, he admitted the Liberal Democrats had been badly hurt in Scotland by their decision to join the coalition.

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