If I understand the different announcements made by the British and Scottish Governments tonight, within a month we will know whether or not there is going to be an Independence Referendum.
Starting firstly with Michael Moore, it is, to say the least, a pity that what he said in the Commons today was not what David Cameron said on the Telly at the weekend. Moore’s proposals are the soul of reason. The Sovereign Westminster Parliament, to avoid any possible legal dubiety, proposes to devolve to the Scottish Government the right to hold a referendum on Independence. There is to be no time limit on when that might be, simply an expressed desire that it be sooner rather than later.
There are conditions but these are essentially only that the electorate be the same electorate that vote in Scottish Parliament Elections; that the Referendum be subject to supervision by the independent Electoral Commission and that it have one question. The possibility is even left open that a different question could be asked on a different date.
It is difficult to see any good faith objection that could be raised to any of these conditions. The Nationalists seek to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds but they must, in their hearts know that once you start mucking about with who can vote legitimately other issues arise: why shouldn’t Scottish Military Personnel, based in England, have a vote? Why should the Captain of our National Football team not have a vote while a management trainee from Poland, working for 12 months at an Edinburgh Hotel, (because that’s where they were sent as their own fifth choice) does get a say? The simple solution has always been that, accepting these anomalies, those who vote are those who can vote at a General Election. Once you start interfering with that then everything is back on the table.
And why shouldn’t the Electoral Commission have an oversight? The Scottish Government’s position to date has been because they (the Electoral Commission) don’t have legal authority to act in that capacity. Well, Mr Moore’s legislation gives them that authority, so what’s the problem now? Is it suggested that the Commission, whose members include George Reid, is a less than impartial body? That’s not suggested so this isn’t really a ground for objection at all.
Finally, the Question. A one question referendum is what the SNP proposed in their Manifesto. It has the support (now) of all other three major Parties. Insofar as can be determined from the same opinion polls Eck used to quote as showing a demand for a question to be asked, that one question is what the people desire.
So, what’s the problem?
That then leads us to the Scottish Government’s announcement.
This was a slightly odd creature. It was obviously a last minute decision to name the date, not least because no actual date was named! That is confirmed by the way it was announced by the FM on an unpreplanned TV interview and by the Cabinet on Twitter(!), together with the fact that four hours later the announcement features on neither the Scottish Government or SNP Website. The lack of detail of what exactly was being announced is the most curious aspect of all.
Now, charitably, it might be that Eck just wanted to put his beach towel on the lounger, defying anyone to move it. For what it’s worth, I’d be surprised if anyone does. What the (Scottish) opposition Parties want is a definite vote before May 2016. On the face of it, we’ve got it. But have we?
As I say, there appears to be no written statement from the Holyrood Administration to clarify what they are proposing. BUT if it is a simple yes/no held in October 2014 then, in light of Michael Moore’s concessions, that will be legally unchallengeable and politically acceptable to the Opposition. If that is what is announced then we will know the Nationalists genuinely want a vote.
If however they announce something else, particularly if they announce the intention to hold a multi-option referendum, or even that this remains a possibility, then what I have been saying all along will have been vindicated. That they want to be prevented, by law, from proceeding. And if they announce that the paving legislation is not to be published and enacted imminently, we will also know that they want the time necessary to unravel any successful challenge to spin matters out to the far side of May 2016.
So, as I say, within a month or so we will know if there is going to be a Referendum. Or at least know whether there is going to be one called by the SNP.
For I think in naming the day (more or less) they may have made a fatal error. Their Manifesto said they wanted a yes/no. They now say their preferred timing is Autumn 2014. If their proposed legislation got into a legal quagmire then, with cross Party Westminster support, UK legislation could secure that objective in a matter of a few months. Even the Nationalists would struggle to describe that as dictation to the people of Scotland.
For once, Eck might not have been as clever as he thinks.