Decisive referendum needed

The debate over the referendum on whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom covers many aspects and One Dynamic Nation will invite guest commentary on each issue.

Today One Dynamic Nation will focus on one area of the debate which continues to be highlighted on blogs, in the media and in parliament and that is whether there should be one or two questions on the ballot paper.

Alex Salmond announced the SNP’s proposed referendum question to the Scottish Parliament on 25 January 2012 when he launched the Scottish Government’s referendum consultation paper. If Salmond gets his way he plans to ask you the following question with yes or no answers:

Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

As part of the Scottish Government’s consultation, they are seeking your views on this proposed question. Alex Salmond has said that it is his preference for a short, direct question about independence which suggests Salmond will not change the question he announced to the parliament even if the consultation responses disagree. One Dynamic Nation agrees that the question is short and direct but takes issue with Salmond on the wording as we believe it is not objective.

The Scottish Government states that the ballot has been designed to comply with the Electoral Commission’s guidelines which state that referendum questions should present the options clearly, simply and neutrally. One Dynamic Nation agrees that the options (yes or no) are presented clearly but not necessarily in neutral way. The voter has two clear and simple choices.

One Dynamic Nation commends the Scottish Government for agreeing to test the ballot paper using a sample of voters, which is in line with a recommendation of the Gould Report. The Government has also said it will take advice from electoral professionals and independent experts on the ballot – again this is to be welcomed.

So far so good it seems. However, despite the SNP saying the above is their preferred option, the SNP is increasingly adding into its public statements that it recognises that there is considerable support across Scotland for a second question on the ballot paper.

Put simply, they are alleging that there is some body of opinion which supports increased responsibilities for the Scottish Parliament, short of independence, but more than the status quo and further, that this body of opinion wants a second question on the ballot paper – the so called devolution max option.

However, the SNP manifesto promised to hold a referendum on independence and nothing else. Some would suggest, because opinion polls show a clear majority in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK, that the SNP are using this as a fall-back position. In other words if they don’t get independence, they will settle for increased powers. On the other hand, even groups campaigning for more powers, like the new Devo Plus group, has said it does not want a second question on the ballot paper. So it is unclear what section of civic Scotland wants a second question.

There is the added problem of how would the ballot paper be designed in the event of two questions? Would the ballot be multi option or would there be two questions and how would the second question be worded? Would it produce a decisive result, if, for example, more people vote for additional powers than independence?

The SNP has said, in designing a referendum on the basis of two questions, the Scottish Government would take expert advice. It also notes that a two question referendum was held in 1997 prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and there are examples internationally.

What is also interesting is, in the Scottish Government’s 2010 consultation on a draft Referendum Bill, this contained proposals to ask two questions about Scotland’s constitutional position; the first question would be on further devolution, the second question would relate to independence. Therefore this is something the SNP has previously actively considered.

Alex Salmond believes that the Scottish Parliament can legislate for a referendum on “devolution max” within the existing framework of devolution. But if this referendum refers to giving the Scottish Parliament new powers to enable independence, in an attempt to work around the Scottish Parliament’s lack of competence to legislate for an independence referendum, it is still a referendum about independence and so would be unlawful without the sanction of the UK government.

The UK Government does not support a two question referendum and has also said the referendum must be decisive. It is the UK Government’s view that, for this to happen, there must be a single, straightforward question. This seems logical.

What is also important to note is that the two questions deal with two entirely separate constitutional issues: first whether more powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom; and second whether Scotland should become an independent country. The example, of the 1997 referendum being similar, is not valid because in 1997 both questions related only to devolution.

In addition, if questions were asked together, there would be four possible outcomes, and leading potentially to four different campaigns, each arguing for a different result. On an issue as important as whether Scotland remains part of the UK, the arguments must be presented clearly, to allow people in Scotland to make an informed decision.

The proposal to use an Order to devolve the power to deliver a referendum would allow the Scottish Government to ask that simple question and for this reason the UK Government has included provision in the draft Section 30 Order that would ensure a referendum asks a single question about whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

One Dynamic Nation believes the SNP should work in a spirit of mature consensual politics and cooperate with the UK Government over the Section 30 Order which will allow for a legal referendum but also accept the need for a fair and decisive question. That means one short, simple and direct question is asked with two options available. This will produce an outcome whatever the result that we can all respect and have faith in as legitimate.