Scottish independence: Salmond fires starting gun
It HAD been widely been assumed the date would be October. After all, had not the Scottish Sun told us long ago that it was going to be on 18 October? Well, in the event, the date was right, but the month was wrong.
In truth, October always looked like a bad choice from Alex Salmond’s point of view. The middle of the month is a time when many a Scot uses the half-term holiday to take a final break before the gloom of winter descends. Indeed, Holyrood itself takes a fortnight off. Mr Salmond has no reason to make it difficult for some of his fellow countrymen to help decide Scotland’s future.
There was, though, a much more important reason why October looked an unlikely choice. It would have meant the ballot taking place shortly after the UK party conference season, when the three unionist parties get their annual opportunity to dominate the political airwaves. All would undoubtedly have used their high-profile platform to press the case for the Union. The First Minister could hardly afford them that opportunity.
As it is, the 18 September poll will take place immediately before the Liberal Democrats kick off the 2014 season. At the same time, it should ensure there is at least a 16-week gap between the European elections (due to be held in late May or early June) and the referendum ballot. That will avoid any difficulty in disentangling money spent by the parties on Euro campaigning from what they spend on the referendum during the period when spending will be regulated.
Meanwhile, 18 September also has the advantage of fitting neatly into the distinctive rhythm of the Scottish holiday season. South of the Border, such a date would raise eyebrows because it would imply politicians trying to campaign when many people are away for their August holidays. North of the Border, in contrast, July is the principal holiday month. Scotland will be able to debate its future, refreshed by the sun and with, perhaps, minimal intervention from south of the Border.
Mr Salmond did not just have to decide when to hold the ballot, however. He also had to decide the day. In last year’s consultation document, the Scottish Government floated the idea of holding the ballot on a Saturday rather than a Thursday – on the grounds more people would find it convenient to vote. It always looked a rather dubious proposition. Trials of weekend voting in English local elections a decade ago failed to produce a higher turnout. The Jewish community was understandably unhappy. But the most obvious difficulty was that the sabbatarian Western Isles would have refused to count until the Monday morning – thereby potentially leaving the rest of the country (and the markets ) on tenterhooks.
On this issue, it seems even Mr Salmond had to recognise the merits of doing things the same way as London.
• John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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