There is a famous quote from chapter 10 of George Orwell’s insightful Animal Farm – “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”
The idea is that you can have the veneer of equality without actually having equality if you are in control of the system.
If we paraphrase this in context of the Independence referendum then we arrive at the statement “All referendums are fair but some referendums are more fair than others.”
For many this is a good paraphrase to reflect some legitimate concerns about the proposed referendum process.
Despite the fact that some may not like a poll outcome, there are never any real questions raised over the legality of a UK election and how it is run. To be fair, there have been issues in the past with the postal vote system but these were demonstrated to be pockets of abuse and nothing that would undermine the overall legitimacy of such a poll.
Can we have the same confidence with the proposed referendum?
Our key areas of concern are the following:-
Timing of referendum
We have already commented on this.
Any delay in holding the referendum is damaging investment and strategic planning in Scotland. This is the message from individuals, businesses and politicians. There is no real reason to delay the referendum beyond the minimum time it takes to set it up.
There is a perception that the real reason for the Scottish Government’s desire to delay the referendum is a hope that this delay (until the Autumn of 2014) will cash in on a feeling of Scottish pride coinciding with their desired time for the poll – brought about both by the Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow and the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. This may or may not be the case. Also, UK Prime Ministers have always tried to call general elections at points in time when the vote will be favourable to them – but is this delay really fair particularly in the case of the referendum,- especially as the delay looks to be damaging the Scottish economy.
Day of the Referendum
There is a suggestion that the day set for the referendum should change from a Thursday to a Saturday. While there is no “official” day set for such a poll, we see no real reason to move this to a Saturday – especially if it could be moved to the Saturday of a holiday weekend. Suggestions of this have appeared in the press.
The claim is that by moving the day to a Saturday this would allow people who work to vote. However polls are already open from 8am til 10pm on an election day which allows most voters to arrange to vote around their work schedule and for those that can’t then there is still the option of a postal vote.
Also if the poll were moved to a Saturday, certain orthodox Jews and faithful Muslims may feel that they cannot vote in person for religious reasons and they would have to use a postal vote instead.
Opening up to the referendum to 16/17 year olds.
We have already commented on this also
Our position is that it is worth having a consultation on this issue in the overall context of those who should vote in any election. However, putting this in place for the independence referendum could be seen cynically as an attempt to extend the vote to a part of the population more likely to vote for independence – which could distort the result – especially if this extension to 16/17 year olds was a “once off” extension made only for the referendum.
There should only be one question.
Again we have already commented on this.
75% of the respondents to the recent UK Government consultation favoured a single question. This removes ambiguity and confusion. This has always been our position. Any discussion on further devolved powers to Scotland should be held after the referendum has decided whether or not Scotland wants to remain part of the UK and should involve all constituent parts of the UK.
Fairness of the question
A poll on capital punishment was once performed on two bases. One had “lead up” dialogue on innocent men and women sent to the gallows and raised the issue that once someone had been executed there was no real way to reverse the decision. The other had “lead up” dialogue concentrating on awful crimes like child murders and serial killings perpetrated by evil men and women with no apparent remorse for their actions. The poll produced two quite different sets of responses based on the context.
What we are considering here is the fairness of the question, but the example above does clearly demonstrate that wording and context are important and can influence an outcome.
The question that has been drafted by the Scottish Government is:-
“Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country”
This focuses on the patriotism of Scots and feeds into a pioneer spirit of creating something new. It also asks for agreement which is quite different from asking if you actually want it to happen.
It has been suggested that fairer question would be :-
“Do you want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.”
This focuses on the real issue – the separation or divorce from the rest of the UK and leads to a consideration of the consequences this. It reminds us that we will lose our British identity post- independence if we chose to remain in Scotland.
To be fair, there are arguments of fairness over both questions.
We at ODN favour the latter question simply because we feel that too little is currently being said by the Nationalists on the real implications of separation and how Scotland would manage after the euphoria (in some quarters) had died down post-independence and the reality of being a small not very significant country in the world started to sink in. Things do not automatically get better simply because we are told they will.
The role of the Electoral Commission
There was initially talk of setting up a separate Scottish Referendum Committee. However the Scottish Government has backed down from establishing such a body for the referendum. It is however vital that the Electoral Commission assumes its full range of responsibilities in the referendum so that the process can be seen to be fair and free from any stigma that might attach due to accusations of questionable practices.
Certainly unless the running of the referendum is fully and properly overseen by the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Government should have no role in holding it. In these circumstances, such a poll could not be demonstrated to be fair to the satisfaction of outside observers and, if a vote for independence was the result, it would almost certainly be legally challenged leading to a long and protracted process through the courts.
Should the Scottish Government hold the referendum
We should not lose sight of the fact that despite the Scottish Government’s position on the rights of the Scottish people to decide their own future, the Scottish Government has no real legal right to hold this referendum as constitutional reform is not a devolved matter.
If the Scottish Government is given the right to hold this referendum and if it is in some way to be a binding referendum, then this privilege is a gift from the people in UK – a mark of respect to the Scottish people. They do not have to give that gift.
In addition it is a matter of semantics’ as to who actually runs the referendum as long as it can be demonstrated to be fair. We suspect that despite the “assumed” desires of the Scottish people, most voting in the referendum would actually still take some comfort from the guarantee of fairness that a UK “instigated” referendum would come with.
I say “instigated” because the UK government still recognises the desire for this to be seen as a Scottish run referendum and it would be likely that Scots would still be in the driving seat and running such a poll – albeit maybe not those in the Scottish Government.
On the whole people have a right to be suspicious of a Scottish Government run referendum because of their declared bias on the question.
There is no doubt that the postal vote privilege was abused in the last general election and this was the subject of several investigations. It seemed far too easy to register for a postal vote for people who either did not exist or who had no idea that their vote was being hijacked. Abuses of this nature will have to be looked out for and a careful monitoring of the postal ballot should be a safeguard built into the referendum. If there is an inconsistently high proportion of postal votes cast for independence this should raise real questions as to their legitimacy with appropriate action taken. At the very least there should be a random audit of people registered for postal votes to ensure that they did in fact register for them and did in fact use them.
There has also been recent press coverage of the fact that the Scottish Government consultation could be hijacked. Anonymous contributions were to have been accepted with no controls over the possibility of multiple submissions, leaving open the possibility of a distortion of the results.
We are glad to see that the Scottish Government has now decided not to accept anonymous contributions and has downplayed the impact this would have had on the results.
Taking all this into account, there is always a real risk that In the end this referendum may not be judged to be particularly fair by future generations – those who will live out their lives in a construction of the British Isles decided by its outcome. But as UK citizens we do have a responsibility to ensure that it will in fact still reflect the true wishes of the majority of the Scottish people, whatever the outcome may be, not just an outcome engineered to what politicians assume it should be.