Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond announced today that the Independence Referendum would be held on 18th September 2014. Three and a half years of preparation and campaigning will come to an end and Scotland will decide whether its future lies within the UK or out of it. At the moment, the polls are looking pretty good for staying in the Union, but that is no cause for complacency. Every vote will have to be fought for across the whole country. It will be a very different sort of campaign.
You would think, wouldn't you, that when you were deciding on a date like that, you would check out that there was nothing else going on at the time? Like a major party political conference, for example. My first reaction when I heard the date was "When's Federal Conference?" Sal Brinton confirmed on Twitter that it's expected to be in Liverpool from 13-17 September.
Faced with that choice, Scots will have to stay in Scotland but that is not without its problems. Someone pointed out on Twitter that there could be election expenses implications if anyone mentions the Referendum publicly at the Conference. And will the Nationalists make a fuss if the BBC covers any of the Conference in Scotland? It will mean that Scottish Liberal Democrats don't get to vote on the elements of the Manifesto for the 2015 election which will no doubt contain plans for further powers for the Scottish Parliament after a "no" vote. It is far from ideal and probably a lot more complicated than we yet realise.
It is pretty disrespectful on the part of the SNP not to have considered this. They might not think some conference in England is important, but the fact is that many Scots have strong ties south of the Border and these things do matter to them.
It's unlikely that the Referendum date will change, especially as the SNP Government has an overall majority at Holyrood. Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour conferences are always held back to back and are agreed years in advance and venues secured. Whether they meant to or not, the net result is that the SNP has created some inconvenience for our party. We'll sort it out, but it's annoying that we have been put in this position.
We will just get on with it, but it's worth pointing out that if we had done this to the SNP, they would have been in every single television studio squealing outrage.
The most important thing, though, is that we get the issues properly debated. It's really important to show that being part of the UK really does give Scotland the best of both worlds. We know that Alex Salmond has been irresponsibly vague on whether he had legal advice on Scotland's future EU membership. We've had a leaked report by the Finance Minister which suggests uncertainty over Scotland's future oil revenues being over-ridden days later by the First Minster proclaiming that there would be an oil boom as I told you last week. If they carry on like this, there'll be more truth in Grimm's Fairy Tales than in the Yes Scotland manifesto come the referendum.
Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore told Scottish Conference this weekend that the SNP had deliberately twisted facts to suit their case, that they had chosen Independence Day even before they had announced the day we'd have to make our choice. The SNP claim that, in the event of a Yes vote they will be able to have all the arrangements for independence finalised by March 2016. That will involve getting all 27 EU member states to agree to admit an independent Scotland and would require speedier negotiations than the EU has ever shown itself capable of. If they are going to do it that quickly, what are they prepared to sacrifice in our name? Today, as the date was announced, Moore had this to say:
I am glad people in Scotland have now been told the proposed date for the referendum.The debate about Scotland’s future has already begun and will only intensify, and that is something I look forward to.I am confident when Scots go to the polls they will vote in favour of Scotland staying within a strong and secure UK family.
I shall be doing all I possibly can to make sure that they do just that.