Leaders: Electoral Commission advice crucial
A REFERENDUM on independence may initially have been seen as a straightforward matter for the Scottish Parliament to determine. It is proving anything but.
From the definition of the word “independence” to the timing of the vote, eligibility for voting, options permitted on the ballot paper, campaign funding limits and the wording of the question, dispute and division have been fierce.
Ahead of the findings of an inquiry by the country’s elections watchdog, two immediate bones of contention have appeared. The first is over the wording of the question that will appear on the voting paper. The second is on funding limits.
The question First Minister Alex Salmond favours is “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?” The objection has arisen that the words “Do you agree” might lead voters to respond in a positive manner and that the question should be cast in more neutral terms. It now appears likely that the Electoral Commission will reject the SNP’s preferred wording and insist instead on the more straightforward “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
On this issue, as on others, the SNP will argue strongly that it is up to the elected Scottish Parliament to decide what the wording of the question should be. Yet while there might not seem much difference, it is clearly imperative that the casting of the question should be free and seen to be free of any accusation of leading voters in one direction or another. It would be to no-one’s advantage for the referendum to become mired in accusations that the voters have been manipulated and the outcome rigged.
Significantly, the head of the of the official Yes Scotland campaign, Blair Jenkins, has said that ministers should obey the findings of the impartial elections watchdog. That is surely good advice. The Scottish Government should listen to the advice of the commission and the SNP-dominated Parliament at Holyrood should weigh its decision carefully in the light of its recommendation and consider the consequences were this to be set aside.
On the issue of funding, the SNP administration looks set to challenge the commission over campaign spending limits. The SNP fears that the independence campaign could be outspent by the combined firepower of the parties campaigning to keep Scotland in the Union. The commission’s proposal is for a £1.5 million limit on campaign spending, with additional spending for the pro-Union parties, in the crucial “restricted period” of the last 16 weeks before the vote. The SNP would like to see this figure reduced, and a £250,000 limit set for each political party.
Given the amount of campaigning already under way, this may seem academic. But these weeks will be critical in mobilising support on both sides of the battle. Here again, the advice of the electoral commission will be critical in determining in voters’ minds what is fair and reasonable.
Save the sarcasm and tighten tax law
American coffee chain giant Starbucks, under political fire for UK corporate tax avoidance, insists that a meeting it attended at Downing Street last Friday was “long scheduled”. It was not, it said, an immediate protest at being singled out in remarks by Prime Minister David Cameron at Davos, where he declared that tax avoiders “need to wake up and smell the coffee”.
This was taken as a thinly disguised swipe at the coffee chain which has paid no UK corporate tax in the past three years, despite booming sales. Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps said no-one was being singled out: it was, apparently, an appeal to smell any coffee, not necessarily the Starbucks brand.
Nevertheless, despite this mutual backtracking, concern over aggressive corporate tax avoidance has once again hit the headlines. It grates on the public that amid declarations that “we’re all in this together”, and voters having to swallow higher tax imposts and spending cuts, international companies are seen to take advantage of transfer pricing and tax loopholes to pay little if any corporation tax on their UK business. Faced with this evident skimming, many will share the desire to apply moral suasion on companies to pay a fairer share of business tax.
But what is, and is not, “fair”? Tax is not a matter of moral goodness, or its absence. It is about paying tax that is clearly calculated and falling due. And the flaw in the Prime Minister’s approach is that if he wishes international companies to pay their “fair” share of tax, then tax law should be amended accordingly. Tax avoidance is legal. Tax evasion is not. And it is tighter tax law that will have the desired effect, not soundbite sideswipes at Davos.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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