WITH Alex Salmond and David Cameron due to shake hands tomorrow on a historic deal paving the way for the independence referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking all the tricky issues surrounding the vote had been ironed out.
And you would be mistaken. We will not know the full details until the publication of the agreement, but, at this stage, it seems there are two areas where the arrangements are far from finalised. This is despite many months of cross-Border negotiations between the Westminster and Holyrood administrations, with the finest minds in the civil service and some big-beast politicians burning the midnight oil to find an equitable deal. The two areas are the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the franchise and the limits on campaign spending in the crucial final weeks before Scotland goes to the voting booths. On both of these issues, there is some legitimate cause for concern and much work still to do.
As we reveal on our front page today, campaign finance looks to be one of the most politically loaded areas of the preparations for the vote. Under the deal, the Scottish Parliament will have the final say on the detail, but it is already clear that the SNP – which has a majority at Holyrood and is therefore certain to get its own way – disagrees with the experts in Electoral Commission on which groups should be allowed to spend cash and what limits should be imposed. Current rules allow spending by individual political parties as well as by the main Yes and No campaigns, and the fact is that there are more pro-UK parties than anti-UK parties. The position is further complicated by the ability of other organisations – trade unions, business groups and special interests – to run their own campaigns, and that some of these may seek to do so from south of the Border.
The minutiae of the regulations will be pored over in the coming weeks, but, at this stage, it is perhaps important to lay down what should be a simple rubric by which to judge the final set of rules. That rubric is this: in the crucial final weeks of the campaign neither side in this contest should be allowed to spend more money than the other. This might seem blindingly obvious, but there are genuine concerns within the Nationalist camp this weekend that if the Electoral Commission rules are followed to the letter, and are not amended to suit Scottish circumstances, the more broadly based anti-independence campaign will have a financial advantage.
The arrangements for giving 16 and 17-year-olds a say are more arcane, but no less important. Before these teenagers can vote they have to be on the electoral register, and the system as it currently stands will struggle to do this. We await the detail of the agreement on the possible remedies, but one suggestion – that 16 and 17-year-olds will have to individually apply for a vote rather than being caught up in the usual registration process – is a grave cause for concern. It would mean, in effect, a two-tier electoral roll.
These are more than just technical gripes. It is essential that every Scot who is deemed eligible to vote has an equal opportunity to do so. And it is crucial that the referendum is conducted in a way that reduces to an absolute minimum the scope for either side to cry foul. Neither side should be able to claim in any way that its opponent has an unfair advantage. That is the key criterion on which the referendum arrangements must be judged.