There has been much discussion of a variety of points relating to the Scottish referendum in the past week – who will run it, who will oversee it, who will be entitled to vote and when will it take place? But the very basic issue that must be settled is the question itself.
Exactly what will Scots who go into the polling stations come Referendum Day be asked to put their cross against?
My view is that we should stick to the one fundamental question that divides opinion: should Scotland become independent or should we remain within the UK?
Referenda work best when testing basic positions on fundamental questions of great importance. And the view of the SNP has always been that Scots should be given this very elementary choice. Even now, newspapers report that most of the SNP Group in the Scottish Parliament favours this one clear question.
There are many who would like to see a third option on the ballot paper: a proposed new settlement involving greater powers for the Scottish Parliament within the framework of the UK. This has variously been described as Devo Max and Independence Lite – horrible marketing inspired terms that have yet to be described in detail. Devo Max also differs from Devo Plus, and probably from other versions too.
Indeed no less a figure that Canon Kenyan Wright, former chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, has argued for a third option to be included in the referendum. His argument is that not to include it would disenfranchise those who would vote for this solution.
I disagree with the Canon on two grounds. Firstly, Devo Max (or Devo Medium, Lite, whatever) is simply a variation on a No vote. By basic definition it involves renegotiating the devolution settlement and that can only happen if Scotland remains within the UK.
And secondly, if we were to include this option in the referendum we should also include every other conceivable option on the ballot paper too. After all, if it is wrong to disenfranchise those who believe in Devo Max it must surely be equally wrong to do the same to those with other differing opinions.
Within those who are going to vote for independence there are many who would like to see Scotland as an EU member and also those who argue that this would be sacrificing some of its independence, so we should eschew Brussels. Should both of these options be available?
Probable No voters will include those who want extra powers for the Scottish Government, those who are happy with the existing arrangement and even some who would rather see our Parliament dissolved entirely. Should the ballot paper include all of these possible choices?
Let’s keep things simple. Out or in. Independence or UK. Yes or No.
How would a multi option referendum work anyway? Three options and pick one? Three options and rate them 1,2,3? Or two separate questions that might result in a contradictory outcome?
No, let’s just remember the old maxim KISS: keep it simple, stupid.
The aftermath of the referendum will be a good time to take a proper look at how we are governed, whatever the outcome might be. A Yes vote would clearly lead to a conversation involving the negotiation of a settlement and the establishment of all of the trappings of an independent country.
But a No vote too should lead to a proper debate about the future governance of the UK. How about a proper Constitutional Convention to come up with a coherent blueprint for the future? A real, written Constitution to replace the bits and pieces of statute, treaty and convention that form the so called unwritten version.
Personally I would start by getting rid of the monarchy, but I know that’s not a majority view (yet!). So let’s set out exactly what a monarch’s powers and obligations are. Then let’s get rid of the House of Lords and replace it with a proper, fully elected second chamber. We would need to define the separation of roles and exact powers of this body compared with those of the lower house. And let’s change the name from the House of Commons while we’re at it.
We then come to the four components of the UK. The relationship between each one and the centre has to be defined. Should we have a more federal structure or one with largely devolved powers in each? Agreeing the role of England is the often forgotten part of this equation. It may be the largest of the four parts by a long way, but it is still just one of the four elements that make up the UK.
That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and whatever was finally agreed would need to be ratified in some fashion by people of the UK. But the end result would be a set of structures fit for a modern democracy. Surely that’s a goal worth spending some time over?
If a bunch of men in Philadelphia could spend the summer of 1787 coming up with the US constitution, why can’t we, with all of the modern advantages that we have, do something similar in the 21st century?