Leaders: Gauntlet thrown down over independence
In the end, the Commission’s preferred wording for the question proved uncontentious – it was not the exact phrasing the SNP government wanted, nor the construct put forward by the anti-independence parties.
But both sides agreed that “Should Scotland be an independent country?” was a wording they could live with.
That was a plus from yesterday. Also the agreement on campaign funding was a plus. It was also a benefit to the entire referendum debate that the Electoral Commission called for clarity and recognised that the public do need more factual information, and that there is confusion.
The shame in all this is that the Electoral Commissions call for clarity wasn’t, well, clearer.
The watchdog said: “The research also showed that voters want factual information ahead of the referendum. In the event of a “Yes” vote there would be a range of issues to be resolved within the UK and internationally about the terms of independence. Although we would not expect the terms of independence to be agreed before the vote, clarity about how the terms of independence will be decided would help voters understand how the competing claims made by campaigners before the referendum will be resolved.”
It added: “The Commission has therefore recommended that the UK and Scottish Governments should clarify what process will follow the referendum, for either outcome, so that people have that information before they vote. To avoid confusion we have asked the Governments to agree a joint position if possible.”
Much of the debate on independence centres on what kind of Scotland would actually emerge after a Yes vote, in terms of currency, defence, international treaties and social security to take just a few examples. Similarly, much of the debate about a No vote centres on what new and strengthened form of devolution might be on offer if Scotland chooses to stay within the UK.
The Commission accepts the actual terms of independence will not be known before the vote – the terms, presumably, being the Scotland’s status in the EU, its share of the UK debt, its currency, its share of UK assets etc etc. However, it thinks that the process following the vote should be laid out – the process being, presumably, which things are to be decided. Asking when, how and by whom is, therefore, setting the bar lower than needed. When asked about what that process could mean the Electoral Commissioner John McCormick said it could be a “timeline”.
There is limited value in the process being made clearer, because what the public need to know are the terms. But the reality is that the terms will not be made known in advance because there will be “no prenegotiation”. If greater clarity in the process is the best we can expect, both governments must do their utmost to provide what clarity they can in a full, open and honest manner.
University stats beg further questions
NEW figures on English applications to Scottish universities make interesting reading. The rise in applicants from England was a notable 15 per cent – but the increase was even more marked for universities that charge English students the maximum possible amount in tuition fees. This suggests these fees were not the gamble some predicted they would be.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. World-renowned universities such as St Andrews were always going to appeal to students keen to have an impressive CV. Such seats of learning have a cachet – and it seems that is a commodity people are willing to pay for.
The more pertinent question might be to ask who these applicants are. Do they represent a wide social spread among English university applicants? Or do they contain a disproportionate number of applicants from wealthy backgrounds, who can more easily afford the size of fees being demanded?
The four-year Scottish degree is a factor here. Although some Scottish universities have capped their fees for a four-year degree at three-year rates, others have not. Again, this would suggest that many of those applying for places north of the Border come from the kind of families for whom fees are not a particularly off-putting issue.
At a time when our oldest universities are under pressure to improve the social mix of their student populations, and give more places to young people who are state-educated and working-class, is an increase in applications under these circumstances necessarily a positive development? More work needs done on the background of these applicants before a judgment can be made.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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