It will be a while yet before Scots get the chance to vote on the country’s future political structure. Now at least we have a slightly clearer idea of how the Scottish Government sees the process working with the publication of its consultation paper on the process.
“Your Scotland, Your Referendum” sets out nine questions on the key procedural issues as well as appending a draft of the bill that the SNP Government would place before the Scottish Parliament. Comments are sought by 11 May 2012.
And it makes very interesting reading too, especially as many of the issues are matters of contention between the UK Government in Westminster and the Scottish Government in Holyrood.
Some of the proposals we already knew from previous announcements. The proposed Autumn 2014 date has been widely debated. Whether you believe that the delay is for procedural or political reasons, it looks like Alex Salmond has won this one. It will be over two years before we go to the polling booths.
The paper backs away from the establishment of a Scottish Referendum Commission to oversee the election, instead giving the job to the established and respected Electoral Commission. Makes perfect sense to me – and it was what the UK Government proposed all along. Will this be played as a Salmond concession in negotiations? And what will he look for in return?
The legal discussion on whether the Scottish Parliament actually has the power to call a referendum is discussed in the paper and the UK Government’s consultation paper is also mentioned. While Salmond and co don’t technically admit to being wrong, a compromise is suggested, through the so called Section 30 approach, where Westminster legislation can be used to give the Scottish Parliament the authority that the UK Government says is required.
But this consultation states that the UK Government must impose no conditions as a part of that transfer of authority and that all matters to do with the organisation of the referendum must be decided by the Scottish Parliament.
Clearly there is still discussion between the two Governments to come, and we know that meetings have been arranged. What sort of deal can be agreed, we will need to wait and see.
The matter of the question, or indeed questions, to be decided on in the referendum is another key issue. The paper suggests a single, short question on the ballot paper with a Yes and No boxes:
“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
Now, firstly, it is interesting to note that this is a much simpler question than the one previously proposed by the SNP, which was:
“The Scottish Parliament has decided to consult people in Scotland on the Scottish Government’s proposal to negotiate with the Government of the United Kingdom to achieve independence for Scotland:
“Put a cross (X) in the appropriate box
“I AGREE that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state.
“I DO NOT AGREE that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state.”
The excellent Lallands Peat Worrier blog (http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.com/) suggests that this clarity implies that a deal is assumed with Westminster. In brief, the legalese has been stripped out because Salmond and co are convinced that there will be an agreement reached on competence that cannot be challenged in court. It will be a binding referendum.
I would tend to agree with this analysis. This is a matter that must be settled at the ballot box by the people of Scotland, not through the legal system. And I am glad we will have a clear proposal with two obvious options on the table.
I am also pleased that the proposal is for one single question on the basic issue of whether Scotland becomes independent or remains a devolved part of the UK.
I have written previously on the so called Devo Max proposal and why it should not form part of this referendum. In short, if it was to be included then so should many other conceivable options, leading to a vastly complicated process. And any form of devolution that might be proposed is, by basic definition, simply a variation on the option of staying within the UK.
But Alex Salmond, typically, is keeping his options open.
This paper may be at heart a legalistic one, setting out arrangements and drafting legislation. The matter at hand however is a political one. And it may well be that the First Minister would be happy to see an enhanced devolution settlement with more powers for Holyrood as a consolation prize should independence not be secured.
He cannot say that though, can he? To do so would risk being accused of lacking conviction in his ability to persuade the Scottish people of the case for independence. So he instead says that he will include a question on Devo Max if it has “sufficient support”, however that is defined. If it is the will of the people …
But is the single question proposed actually a loaded one? The Electoral Commission previously rejected a similar form of wording from Nick Clegg for the AV referendum that would have changed the voting system. The Commission in that case ruled that a “Do you agree …” type of question was too leading. It suggests the way to answer rather than laying out options.
There has also been some discussion on the precise wording of the question, and particularly the fact that it does not mention that independence means leaving the UK. I’m sure it’s no accident that the proposed form of words doesn’t even mention the United Kingdom. But would it not be clearer if it did? This issue is sure to be a focus for more discussion between the two governments, and the Electoral Commission will also have a view in time.
Many of the technical requirements for running the referendum – Returning Officers, counting procedures, spending limits – are, not surprisingly, in line with current and established practice. But there are a couple of changes floated for discussion.
The idea of holding the election on a Saturday rather than the traditional Thursday is suggested as a means to increase turnout. There will be pros and cons to this but I’m not convinced that there is a case for a change. And it has been pointed out that the Western Isles would probably refuse to count into a Sunday morning after a Saturday vote, thus delaying the final result!
Eligibility to vote in the referendum has been in the news recently. The paper suggests using the normal electoral register and therefore a residency qualification – only those registered as living in Scotland can vote and not ex-pats, which many are arguing for.
I’m very much in favour of the franchise being limited to those actually on the electoral register in Scotland. This is the norm for every other kind of election and referendum and to do anything else gets complex. Do we include anyone born in Scotland but living elsewhere? Anyone who used to live in Scotland? Anyone who might be moving to Scotland soon? Those with a Scottish granny, as is used in eligibility for national football teams?
No, let’s keep things clear and simple. Residents in Scotland will vote on the future governance of the country.
The one change to the normal electoral rules proposed is a lowering of the voting age from the usual 18 to 16. This can be seen as a means of engaging young people in the political process or a cynical move to include more probable Yes votes (if polls are to be believed), depending on your point of view.
There may well be a case for lowering the voting age from 18. But I think that should be discussed at another time rather than as part of a referendum process. There should be one age at which you become a part of the voting public, and to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum but not at any other elections which might be held around the same time makes little sense to me.
These then are the key issues on which the Scottish Government is seeking views. Whatever you may think of their proposals, or indeed of the merits of independence or remaining within the UK, I would urge you to have your say. It is our future that will be debated and voted on after all.
And the sooner we get the technicalities out of the way, the real debate can begin.