Wednesday, 25 January 2012

An expected response

I've been working all day. Proper honest toil: a Child Welfare Hearing; a First Appearance on a serious assault; a new divorce client and quite a complicated legal riddle about the defaulting tenant of a chippy.

So, unlike some others, I have not had time to hang on every word of the First Minister.

Even on my return home, I was sorely tempted to watch the State of the Union before turning my attention to today's events.  I have resisted that temptation but not that of first watching the news.

Much, I am sure, to Eck's annoyance, the Big Announcement, did not lead the BBC News. "Unionist conspiracy" theories about this "calculated insult to Scotland" (Eck and Scotland being interchangeable in that particular lexicon)  will have however been rather undermined by the fact that it didn't lead the Channel 4 News either.

The most important news today was the appalling fourth quarter growth figures but, even then, if anything really important had been announced by the Scottish Government, there might have been something of a dilemma for those editors charged with working out a running order. But nothing very important was announced today; just a lot of hot air.

I'd tried to read the consultation paper on my phone during the day but abandoned this as perilous to my eyesight. However, on my return home I googled "Scottish Referendum White Paper" and got four different previous events. An August 2007 Announcement; a November 2009 Announcement; a May 2011 Announcement and a November 2011 Announcement. We might not have had an actual referendum but we've certainly have lots of referendum announcements!

Having found the correct document, I've still not had as much time as I'd have liked to digest it, so I reserve the right to notice, tomorrow or wherever that I've missed something. Anyway, I'm always happier with working with a hard copy.

But, that having been said, are we any further forward? Not really.

We've got a different question and we appear to have moved in principle from claiming we'll ask a second question only if somebody else actually asks for it, to essentially saying we'll ask such a question if we can get away with it. But, devo max remains as obscure as ever, as does, other than the SNP itself , who exactly are the partisans of such a question being asked. Equally, Independence remains no more defined than it ever was.

And that's about it.

There remain directly contradictory statements which characterise so much SNP propoganda although it is disappointing that the civil sevice has allowed their inclusion in an official government document. For example the introduction contains this curious formulation

"Eligibility to vote will be the same as for Scottish Parliament and local government elections and for the 1997 referendum on devolution. The Scottish Government also proposes to extend the franchise to include those 16 and 17 year olds who are on the electoral register on the day of the poll."

Patently, irrespective of the merits of the proposition of the second sentence, it contradicts that contained in its immediate predecessor.

Equally, the proposition

Under independence, Scotland would have the rights and responsibilities of a normal, sovereign state and continue its membership in the European Union

Contains a contradiction within the same sentence!

The First section about legal powers is also full of unsubstantiated assertions as to the law, some of which e.g.

"What is not in question is the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum about changes to the powers of the Scottish Parliament within the framework of devolution." 

are patently untrue. Hopefully somebody someone will ask the First Minister tomorrow whether the Government Legal Service agree with the legal opinions expressed in the introduction and Part One of the document. Indeed I will by working the phones tonight to that effect.

Once you get past the Introduction and Part One, the rest of the document is less contentious and generally comes across as written by officials rather than politicians. Obviously this includes the welcome back down on the involvement of the Electoral Commission. There is however one very interesting section on funding. PPERA is to apply restricting political parties to spending £250,000 each. That at first blush looks to favour the "Unionist"  Parties, since they are more numerous. But, excepting that expenditure, the opposing camps are to be dragooned by law into two opposing Yes and No campaigns and then to have their expenditure capped at £750,000.

Now, it is the SNP themselves who are crowing that it would be a mistake for Labour to campaign alongside the Tories but it would now appear that it is the SNP are trying to insist, by law, on that outcome.

I'm not yet persuaded that there is anything sinister in this. To be fair, it does not allow the SNP themselves to spend all the money they have available. Nonetheless, it will have to change. I will return to this.

Overall however I come back to where I started. Little has changed today. We might know one question but we still don't know the proposition upon which it is asked. We still don't know if it will be the only question. We don't know if the question(s) will be within the competence of the Scottish Parliament and, if they are not, whether the Nationalists will compromise to allow a referendum to take place or use legal difficulties as an excuse not to have one.

Presumably, for any of that to be clearer we will have to await another "historic" announcement. Roll on St Andrew's Day.

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