Friday, May 11, 2012

My response to Scottish Government's consultation on the Independence Referendum

Before you read this - if you haven't filled in your response yet, you must do so by the end of today. Go there right now and get it done. It'll take you five minutes. You don't have to live in Scotland to do so.

I put in my response this morning and I thought I would set it out for you to see. If any of it looks familiar, much of it is the same as the one I did for Mike Moore's consultation in March. 


What are your views on the referendum question and the design of the ballot paper?

It’s really important that the question does not influence the voter in any direction. It must be balanced and neutral. I can see that “do you agree” could be biased as the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster said earlier this week. Do you agree or disagree is better but clumsy. I think that “Do you think Scotland should” or “Do you want” Scotland to leave the UK and become an independent country? “could work. The decision on a fair and neutral question must be made by the Electoral Commission.

What are your views on the proposed timetable and voting arrangements?

I'm relaxed about timing. I'm more concerned about the atmosphere of the campaign rather than the timescale. If there was actual hard, independent, compelling evidence that the uncertainty over Scotland's future was causing harm to the economy, then I would expect the Scottish Government to move their plans forward. I don't think, however, that they should be compelled to do so. The UK Government is concerned with making the referendum decisive, legal and fair. Timing does not seem to me to be relevant to any of these three criteria. If the Scottish Government fails to act if there was such evidence, then that would be up to them and they’d have to take the consequences.It is, however, their mistake to make, not the UK Government's to prevent. If getting their own way on this is more important to the SNP than Scotland’s economy, then they have to account for that view.

If the UK Government was to legislate for votes at 16, then a later date would be required for this to be implemented in time.


What are your views on the inclusion of a second question in the referendum and the
voting system that could be used?

My personal views lie with neither independence nor the status quo, so I might be expected to want more than one question to give me greater choice. However, having looked into this in greater detail, I believe that anything other than a single yes or no to independence question could produce an inconclusive result. Professor Matt Qvortrup recently gave examples in the Times newspaper of multi-option referenda which had done just that. The day after the Referendum, Scotland needs to be very clear what it has voted for. If you have three options, it's clear that two could attract more than 50% or one come narrowly ahead with just a third of the vote.

As a fervent supporter of additional powers to Scotland, I reluctantly accept that this referendum on independence is not the appropriate forum to explore that further devolution. However, I would like to see a defined process in place to give the Scottish people a say on what sort of further powers they want. I would prefer this process to be set up in advance of the referendum as I do not believe that vague promises will carry much weight without being underpinned with legislation.


What are your views on the proposal to give the Electoral Management Board and its
Convener responsibility for the operational management of the referendum?

I have no objection to this but it must have its decisions approved by the Electoral Commission which should have overall responsibility for all matters pertaining to the Referendum. This is not a time to have two bosses. You need one body in charge to give consistency and clarity.


What are your views on the proposed division of roles between the Electoral Management Board and the Electoral Commission?

The Electoral Commission should have overall responsibility for the whole Referendum. It should make the decisions about who does what. However, when there is a structure in place, it would seem sensible for them to use it. The Electoral Commission has a reputation for fair, neutral, professional management of elections and referenda and it should be given the freedom to make all the decisions on how the process should be managed.


What are your views on the idea that the referendum could be held on a Saturday or on other ways which would make voting easier?

I am not convinced that the research shows that Saturday voting increases turnout. For me the best way to make sure people vote is to inspire them to. I have no particularly strong views that it shouldn’t be at a weekend, but it’s important that it doesn’t then exclude people from voting. People are more likely to be away from home at weekends. I am adamant, though, that it shouldn’t take place around school holidays.


What are your views on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 years who are eligible to be registered on the electoral register?

The franchise should be the same as for a Scottish Parliamentary Election.

My ideal scenario would be for the UK Government to legislate for votes at 16 for all elections in time for the next UK wide election in June 2014, for the European Parliament.

I do not believe that there should be a unilateral inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds as a one off for the referendum for two reasons. Firstly, how awful would it be to be able to vote on Scotland's future in the Autumn of 2014 and then to have that vote taken off them in the Westminster election of 2015, just a few months later.

The  Scottish Government also don't intend to canvass 14 and 15 year olds in the Autumn of 2013, so we would be in the bizarre situation where some 16 year olds, who were 16 at the time of that Canvass would get a vote yet younger 16 year olds would not. That would be extremely unfair and wrong.


What are your views on the proposed spending limits?

I don’t think that it’s the business of interested parties to have an opinion on the spending limit – these should be set by the neutral Electoral Commission and should be consistent with other referenda.


Do you have any other comments about the proposals in the draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill?

Legality of the Referendum

The Scottish Government clearly has a mandate to hold a referendum but I know, and I think they know too, that if they just went ahead and did it themselves, it would be open to legal challenge. Frankly, in these challenging economic times, I don't want to see my household's taxes being blown on a costly, protracted legal battle over the legality of a referendum that is completely unnecessary. I expect the UK and Scottish Governments to agree on the outstanding questions about the process so that we can just get on with discussing the issues.

Purdah Period

The foreword written by the First Minister to the consultation document is an audacious advertisement for independence paid for by the public purse. It illustrates the very clear conflict of interest between the Government and the SNP.  The SNP exists to bring about an independent Scotland. The Government has to remain neutral and it is unthinkable that Government money could ever be used to promote independence. Already, there are pop ups and links on the Scottish Government website which take you to the Referendum website. That simply should not be allowed.

I want to see really tight regulation of what the Government can and can’t do in order to influence the outcome of this referendum. Subtle inclusion of advertising in official publications is unacceptable and is an abuse of power.

The consultation document mentions a 28 day period in which the Government will not make any official pronouncements about the referendum. This is risible if the Government is allowed to saturate the electorate with pro independence propaganda before then.

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