AS WE head towards the historic vote on Scottish independence, perhaps we can all agree on one thing at the very least: the question put to the voters in the autumn of 2014 must be utterly clear in its meaning and intent, and there cannot be any suggestion that it favours either side of the argument.
Only with this as a given can Scotland hope to have any kind of meaningful debate between now and polling day.
Without a degree of clarity about the question, and general agreement about its neutrality, there is little chance that the referendum campaign could begin to examine the very real issues at stake on their own terms. It would also be impossible to have a campaign conducted in good faith and without rancour.
Which is why the work done by a triumvirate of eminent academics and electoral experts headed by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood (better known as Stewart Sutherland) is most welcome in the Scottish political debate. Their conclusions, published yesterday, will go some way to dispelling much of the distracting smoke from the referendum battleground, enabling us all to see the real issues more clearly.
When the Scottish Government published its preferred wording for the referendum question earlier this year, there was praise for its brevity and simplicity – but there were also concerns that the phrasing could make voters more likely to plump for independence. Among experts in this field there now seems to be some agreement that this is indeed the case.
Faced with this view, the Scottish Government should avoid the temptation to be drawn into a prolonged and sustained defence of its initial preferred wording. For the reasons expressed above, this would be ultimately futile and self-defeating.
What First Minister Alex Salmond should do is end the speculation about the question and accept the views of this eminent group of academics, whose neutrality is beyond question. Ministers should commit themselves to this new form of words as their favoured question (assuming, of course, that the referendum turns out only to have a single question – but that is an argument for another day).
Mr Salmond should now go further, in the name of a referendum that is fair and above board. He should accept, without qualification that the UK’s Electoral Commission should have the final say on the matter of the question’s wording, and that the Scottish Government will be bound by the commission’s final adjudication on this crucial matter.
All the politicians involved in this campaign, on both sides, have to acknowledge that before they try to persuade Scots about the merits and demerits of the rival constitutional options, they first have to prove the contest is not rigged. Agreement on a fair question is a sine qua non of this referendum.
Market will decide on ‘booze cruises’
FOR English people who live within easy reach of the Channel ports, the “booze cruise” has long been a pleasant routine. What could be nicer than a quick trip over on the ferry, a spot of lunch in a nice little French bistro, some shopping in one of the huge wine warehouses that line the Normandy coast and back home the same day with some bargain bottles in the boot?
Now it seems we in Scotland are about to be offered a similar experience, once the Scottish Government introduces minimum pricing for alcohol. Northumberland County Council’s Labour group is proposing that the area uses this ground-breaking public health measure as a boost to local business – encouraging drouthy Scots south on “booze runs” to buy their alcohol cheap in England.
It has to be acknowledged that this plays on not one but two Scottish stereotypes – one, that we like a drink, and two, that we like a bargain. It must also be acknowledged, if we are being honest, that these two stereotypes have some foundation in real life.
Local Conservatives have condemned this initiative as “irresponsible”. But proponents of the scheme argue that there could be intense competition between towns and cities just south of the Border for what is anticipated will be a major source of revenue.
Proponents of Scotland’s minimum pricing regime may, for understandable reasons, be irritated at these English moves to undermine their strategy. They should save their breath. The market will always find its customer if a customer is there to be found. And human nature tells us that there may well be customers aplenty. Anybody know any good French bistros in Alnwick?