14 February 2012

#Indyref: In Defence of "Process"...

Where is Gypsy Amalia when you need her? Among the independence referendum's many imponderables, perhaps the most difficult aspect to foresee with much certainty at this stage is frustratingly elementary. Will Scotland be asked a simple, binary question on independence alone, or will a second question advocating some sort of enhanced devolution also be included? Across the land, clairvoyants, diviners and seers are bent double over their scrying puddles, struggling to pick out the truth amid the shifting eddies and undertows of our political discourse.

On this weekend's Sunday Politics Scotland, the blogosphere's Ian Smart and Kate Higgins both lamented the contemporary focus of political debate on questions of process, arresting the happy shift to discussion of substance. I'm afraid I can't agree. It is not as if we're endlessly deliberating on the number of paper-clips John Swinney proposes to requisition for the campaign, nor exchanging managerial disquisitions on the most efficient number of ballot papers to send to the returning officers of Cumbernauld.

While the issues outstanding are more and less likely to quicken the heart-rate and inflame the blood - questions, timing, franchise, oversight - I don't see how we can shift properly onto the substantial debate, without knowing what sort of discussion we can expect to have, what options are being put to the people.  The observation is banal, but a single issue campaign will be a profoundly different creature than one that ranges over more than one issue, and as yet, we don't know whether we'll be dealing with an either/or choice or an either/either/or. It is all very well to find the official political debate around these issues of referendum process by turns arid and affected - I sympathise with that assessment - but it strikes me as decidedly previous, and to underestimate the ways in which these initial questions of process will guide, frame and shape the substantial debate, to hope to make progress with a serious-minded analysis of what independence or "devolution max" might mean in practice for people's lives, when we haven't decided what the referendum will actually ask.

We know that there will be an independence question will be on the ballot paper - seeming likely to be the SNP's "Do you want Scotland to be an independent country?" - but context is everything. To ask that question alone is not to the same as asking it beside a second, proposing something shy of independence. On that score, even folk who are pro-independence are divided. As I understand her, Kate is keen on something in the "devo-max" line being included, while Gerry Hassan has unequivocally endorsed an alternative approach, arguing "We need to have a One Question Referendum. It is that simple!"

In a subsequent post, I intend to return to the bewildering range of tactical whys and wherefores at work in the political debate around the potential inclusion of a second question. In the interests of brevity, however, it is worth asking: just how long do we really have to decide whether a question on "more devolution" can be included in a referendum which, on Michael Moore's terms, is "fair, decisive and legal"? 

Take the Scottish Government timetable. Its Your Scotland - Your Referendum consultation is scheduled to end on the 11th of May 2012. They hope to finalise their draft Bill during the autumn and winter of this year, introducing it into Holyrood "early" in 2013. Simultaneously, down in London, Michael Moore's Scotland Office is running its Scotland's constitutional future consultation, on how a power to hold a legally-secure independence referendum ought to be clearly devolved to Holyrood, and what the precise scope of that power should be. Moore's consultation closes on Friday 9th of March. Both pose questions (at least obliquely) which solicit views on the inclusion of a second question, advocating some form of "increased devolution". As the Scottish Government has itself recognised, its preferred independence question relies on a section 30 order under the Scotland Act being made. To be competent, that section 30 order will have to be made before the Bill is introduced. I.e. some time before the end of this year.

In practical terms, the UK Government are proposing making an Order under section 30 of the Scotland Act.  The new referendum question adopted by the Scottish Government strongly implies - even relies on the fact - that a deal will be cut with Westminster, to eliminate legal dubieties, and allow a simple, direct question to be put. Unlike ordinary legislation, which can be amended and debated, these statutory instruments have to be accepted or rejected as drafted.  Practically speaking, Orders in Council are laid before both Houses of Parliament, and before Holyrood, for consent. We should also keep in mind that Westminster is in summer recess from the 27th of July to the 6th of September; Holyrood between 30th of June and 2nd of September, and shan't be consenting to anything.

While Autumn 2014 seems a long time away, the decision on whether or not a devo-max question will be posed in this referendum is realistically imminent. Ah, but say support for independence runs high. Might DavCam not lose his nerve, panic, and his opposition to the question's inclusion crumble? We have to distinguish between that's possible and what's realistic. Come Autumn 2013, I struggle to envision it. Another Order in Council, more legislation from Holyrood, culminating in an unexpected and disorderly late amendment to the ballot paper, to include a second question? While possible, such a scenario seems decidedly improbable to me. If "more devolution" is to be part of our referendum, we have to decide about its inclusion now.

After Moore's Edinburgh meeting with Salmond yesterday, the UK Government reiterated its enthusiasm for a simple yes or no independence question, without any devolved alternative attached. For those keen to change the coalition's mind, who want "more devolution" on the ballot paper, and want that ballot to be free from legal challenges - time really is short. A detail that at least two admirable Scottish bloggers of my acquaintance will welcome with cheery phizogs and hearts freed from the turbulent inertia of the present, essential, substantial, process-focussed choices that are still before us.


  1. The biggie is in relation to the Devomax question, a well worded one would in reality be the equivalent of an Independence one.

    "The Government of Quebec (Scotland) has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada (the UK), based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec (Scotland) to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada (the UK)an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec (Scotland) the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?" (Scotland and the UK)

  2. My over riding realisation from my involvement in the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign is that process matters.

    It affects what is discussed. How it is discussed. What may be said. How a decision is to be reached. Who is to decide.

    These are not trivial matters.

    The outcome (not just the election result but how that sits with the nation) might well be very different if a simple two question referendum were conducted rather than three option referendum using preferential voting.

  3. Groundskeeper Willie14 February 2012 at 19:02

    'some sort of enhanced devolution'

    Which surely is the reason why it's not a subject that's appropriate for a referendum.

    Q. Are you in favour of 'some sort of enhanced devolution'?

    Yes/No/Mibbaes aye mibbaes naw/Depends.

  4. GrassyKnollington14 February 2012 at 20:45

    Hi LPW my problem with this analysis is that I don't know who the "we" that you refer to are.

    If it's now accepted and I hope it is, that the only people able to grant the fabled DevoMax are the Tory/LibDem coalition then "we" can do nothing about it.

    Civic Scotland could come out tomorrow and endorse a second question wholeheartedly but it would still be Westminster's question to frame and deliver.

    I struggle to think of reasons why people believe Tory MP's would ever grant this strange neologism to Scoland. It's a complete and utter pipe dream, the bastard child of unionism lite and Liberal Home Rule.

    Time for Scots to take a reality check and face the stark fact that anything short of a YES vote in 2014 is a vote for the status quo or worse.

  5. Well, the proposed wording needs to change from "do you agree" to "do you want", otherwise I can see Westminster saying "ya-boo" to anything but an absolutely overwhelming Yes. Why? Because that question does not specifically ask if the person wants Scotland to be independent. It's like asking someone if they agree sex is a good thing, then are presented with a choice that - ahem - think of your worst nightmare! Different way of asking a question, different answers.

    I get the feeling that after all the political posturing between Westminster and Salmond - sorry, Holyrood - most people have lost interest. It's over two years away, and there are more pressing issues (for some, Rangers FC being reduced to selling the football equivalent of the Big Issue).

    Of course, the council elections in May will reignite the debate, with no doubt a win for the SNP being - in their minds - absolute proof that Scotland wants independence, or at least in Glasgow from the imploding Labour Group.

    Makes you wonder if the SNP should have just said after the summer, "bugger it", referendum in 6 weeks time. At least we might know what the hell was going on by now.

  6. GrassyKnollington15 February 2012 at 09:35

    "Do you agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament? Yes or no", and the second: "Do you agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-rising powers? Yes or no"

    seemed to be perfectly acceptable and even well understood in 1997.

    It wasn't presented as a "trick" or a "fix" intended to confuddle and mislead at that time.

    I acknowledge the unionist theme that the referendum is all chaos and confusion can hardly blame them for trying to push it, they have a lot to lose.

    Fortunately the timescale has been chosen in order to deal with this "confusion". We won't be thrown out of the EU, we have as much right to use the pound sterling as England does and the horrendous biggie that we're not in fact subsidised by a benign, indulgent (but fast running out of patience) Westminster.

    No wonder unionists want a speedy referendum. At the rate their propaganda is being debunked by the SNP there is a clear and present danger of a well informed Scottish electorate by 2014.

    A truly unpleasant prospect for some.

  7. Groundskeeper Willie,

    Just because I didn't compose a carefully pitched definition hardly means that it is impossible to compose such a question, and put it to the people. That wasn't my business here.


    A fair point - and I was using "we" sufficiently loosely that it probably doesn't include "me"! At this stage, I'm tempted by a simple yes-no referendum for the devilment of it - I think it is winnable on those terms - but am insufficiently certain in my opinion that I wouldn't wail too cacophonously if some sort of "more devolution" question also made an appearance.

    On the detail of your point: it really depends. The draft s30 order published by Moore seeks to rule out asking about devo-max by making the competence of an independence question contingent on it being asked alone. The s30 order need not do so. As I've noted in previous pieces, it all really depends how steely the coalition's resolve is to see only a single question posed. As to reasons why Tories might (ought to) consider it, see Alex Massie in the Spectator.

    Barbarian of the North,

    I really can't see that happening. Albion isn't that perfidious. Question wrangling is a pre-referendum question, and won't be a post-referendum one, whatever the result.

    I don't deny that folk may not find this scintillating stuff - as I say, I sympathise with Ian and Kate's subjective disenchantment - the question of whether devo-max can be included may have been made dull, but it is hardly unimportant.

  8. GK - According to Wikipedia, the '97 referendum presented electors with two statements - "I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament" and "I do not agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament" - and asked them to support one.

    I'd suggest we have a single question following that format, which should answer the grumbles of (most of) the objectors.

  9. Groundskeeper Willie15 February 2012 at 14:22

    Lallands Peat Worrier said...

    'Just because I didn't compose a carefully pitched definition hardly means that it is impossible to compose such a question, and put it to the people. That wasn't my business here.'

    O.K then smarty pants. Draft the question.

  10. Groundskeeper Willie15 February 2012 at 16:26


    The difference between then and now is that devolution was a cross party issue, independence isn't.

  11. Actually independence is a cross-party issue.

  12. Groundskeeper Willie16 February 2012 at 09:56


    Actually it's not.

    No Labour, Tory or Lib Dem politician will be campaigning for a yes vote.

    No SNP politician will be campaigning for a no vote.

  13. Actually it is. I know it suits the unionists to pretend that there are only 4 political parties in Scotland but that is not the case.

    If we take Glasgow for instance the combined list vote for the SNP and Greens was 95,563.

    The combined list vote for Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems was 91,092.

  14. Groundskeeper Willie16 February 2012 at 17:03


    Can you explain how that makes independence a cross party issue?

  15. Yes GW. Because the two main indeepndence parties won more votes than the three main unionist parties.

    Of course we could also add in the smaller parties - the parties of the left like SSP/Soldarity who are pro-independence and the parties of the right like BNP/UKIP who are pro Union but I have been looking at the parties with elected representation.

  16. Groundskeeper Willie17 February 2012 at 10:09


    Let me explain.

    When devolution was on the agenda there were people for and against in the three main political parties.

    They were all allowed to campaign in support of their views.

    That's not the case now.

    Do you see the difference?

  17. I totally agree it is not the case now.

    No-one from the Tories, Lib Dems or Labour will be allowed to camopaign for independence!

  18. Groundskeeper Willie17 February 2012 at 12:43


    And likewise no one from the SNP will campaign for a no vote.

    That wasn't the case with devolution.

    Some people in the Labour Party supported devolution, some were against it. Some people in the Tory party supported devolution, some were against it. When that happens with an issue, its called a cross party issue. Independence is not a cross party issue.

    Every day is a school day.

  19. And what a ridiculous situation it is. Independence is a far more important issue than devolution, so if either issue should be left for individual members to decide which side they're on, it should be independence.

    But then, perhaps this is the point - it's too important for the unionist parties to let their own members undermine their already fragile arguments.

  20. I think we are looking at different definitions of cross-party here. My understanding of that term is when people work for a common cause on a cross-party basis. So when the "yes" campaign is set up it will include members of different political parties - and people who aren't members of political parties at all. The same will be true of the "no" campaign.

    I also think your recollection may be a little faulty re devolution. In 1979 yes the parties were split. That was not so in the run-up to the 97 referendum. The Labour Party as a whole supported the establishment of a Scottish Parliament as did the Lib Dems. With the exception of Tam Dalyell I don't recall any Labour members opposing a yes vote and neither did any Lib Dems. And both parties worked with the SNP to maximise the Yes Yes vote. On a cross-party basis.

  21. good God almighty, yet another strong argument against independence from good aul dependable jannie/braveheart. He has got to be a paid drone, got to be! Embarressing that he is a tim as well.

  22. Groundskeeper Willie17 February 2012 at 21:47

    Indy said...

    'So when the "yes" campaign is set up it will include members of different political parties'

    It won't include anyone from Labour, the Lib Dems or the Tories.

    It's not a cross party issue.

  23. Groundskeeper Willie17 February 2012 at 21:54


    'Rangers must continue for the future of Scottish football and for the fabric of the country'

    What kind of Scotland does Fat Eck want if he thinks the huns are essential to its fabric?

    Did your granny not warn you about them?


  24. Wullie

    Lol! You must know me or of me or whatever. Wee Eck should be aware of giving backing to a serially fraudulant institution...........and any menttions of traditions and history has me throwing things at the telly.

    Stupid of me to think I could out-troll the master.


    Still i'd rather be wi people who make the odd faux pas, than prop up the brittania's huns wi their long range guns. And that mo chara is the poisoned chalice that you have chosen. Would you argue for the sticks to come under those guns again/ Seriously doubt it.

  25. I'm not saying that the question is unimportant. However, with all the "Scotland needs the Union" and "not acceptable to the people of Scotland" argybargy between the two opposing camps, people may simply switch off.

    And as too Salmond backing Rangers - tell him to keep clear of sport, eh?

  26. Groundskeeper Willie said...

    O.K then smarty pants. Draft the question.

    Apologies. I missed this question directed my way. Firstly, a "more devolution" question is easily stateable - but I'm happy to recognise that the easiness of doing so depends on underlying agreement about the changes being proposed.

    In particular, it is probably easiest to frame a devo-max question, that borrows the logic of the current Scotland Act 1998 and specifies the powers it would reserve to Westminster, while devolving everything else. Probably worth a short blog, that - sometime next week!