Lesley Riddoch: Opportunity knocks, but no answer

THE referendum is a once-only chance it looks like we’re going to miss by accepting lack of options, writes Lesley Riddoch

THE referendum is a once-only chance it looks like we’re going to miss by accepting lack of options, writes Lesley Riddoch

All hail Scotland’s historic independence referendum deal, to be announced today with as much fanfare as Alex Salmond can muster (and as little as David Cameron can manage).

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Does it matter if the result is a bit of a foregone conclusion? No. The official seal of approval and the fact we finally get new film of the Prime Minister and First Minister shaking hands is enough to create a sense of occasion.

Scots will indeed vote in autumn 2014 even though nine short months ago that timescale was thought likely to destabilise Scotland. Now UK ministers are intent on an “in-out” EU referendum, so clearly total constitutional uncertainty about the future has been embraced as a Good Thing.

The Scottish Government will decide the precise wording of the question – but since they published their preferred version months ago, that’s not much of a surprise.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will get the right to vote – except they might not be able to exercise it unless a new register is constructed pronto. So near but yet so far for the young ‘uns – nothing new there either.

And the result will be legally binding because Westminster will graciously extend Section 30 powers to the Scottish Government. In all honesty, did anyone think they wouldn’t?

Today will be like a predictable election result where everyone’s a winner. Everyone, that is, except the majority of Scottish voters who have expressed their preference for two questions in successive opinion polls. Now those who back more powers for Holyrood will get the chance to choose for their second best option – independence or the status quo.

Och well. What were we really expecting? Just because Scots know important decisions are rarely binary and opted to ditch first-past-the-post for Holyrood and council elections as hopelessly antiquated years ago, why should the most important vote for three centuries reflect that reality? It’s far more important, isn’t it, to have “clarity”, that reticent best friend of “prudence” in whose name so much hypocritical nonsense was spouted while banking corruption went unchecked during the last Westminster government.

So in the interests of clarity, devolution-supporting Labour and the (once) federalist Lib Dems could maybe answer this. Should the 37 per cent of Scots who favour more powers for the Scottish Parliament short of independence express that desire by voting yes or no in autumn 2014?

Yip – clear as mud, isn’t it?

At this rate democracy is endangered by the prospect of a low turnout and a rerun of 1979 where the Scottish Assembly on offer didn’t command enough popular support to break the 40 per cent turnout barrier.

Or the 2004 referendum on John Prescott’s proposed English assemblies where – once again – a no vote clarified only that a full range of options had not been presented to folk in the North-East.

There is one big difference. In 2014 the two options on offer will suit the Yes and No camps down to the ground – and that’s around 60 per cent of Scottish voters. So six out of ten will be able to vote for precisely what they want – the kind of middling result that’s considered good enough by British politicians.

But good enough for voters? The Electoral Reform Society in Scotland spent six months holding detailed discussions with members of the Scottish public and engaged more than the “usual suspects”. Its initial report, Democracy Max, observes “perhaps the surprising thing to emerge from the first stage of this process is the depth of hostility people have towards political parties”. Why the surprise?

No matter how often politicians and commentators talk about the SNP’s mandate to hold “their” referendum, this decision belongs to the people of Scotland, not any single political party.

Alex Salmond has already said there will be no “neverendum” – no further push for another independence vote in our lifetimes. So the 2014 vote will use up all of Scotland’s formal democratic leverage for the next quarter century. And please let’s not hear any tosh about people power still being able to push for devo-something if independence fails.

Just as there has been no further talk of UK voting reform after the AV referendum no vote, so Scotland will be off the UK agenda for a decade if Scots fall for David Cameron’s wobbly pledge of more powers maybe if they just vote no. Despite Michael Moore’s pledge to the contrary on the BBC yesterday, the current (and already redundant) Calman proposals only happened because of the SNP’s 2007 victory.

If the public muzzles the independence tiger by voting no, fear of the revolting Scots will evaporate at Westminster. But let’s not pretend the people’s voice matters so much to the SNP either. If it did, the 26,000 people who bothered to respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation would have heard its results before the deal between Westminster and Holyrood was concluded. But no.

The announcement regarding “the most important vote to be taken by the Scottish people in our lifetimes etc” couldn’t wait for the formal democratic process to be completed. Hell no – it’s only the views of the people.

The two governments are good to go, the civil servants are locked and loaded and the timing this week is great for Alex (just before the SNP conference) and OK for Dave (a slight distraction from the sea of woe at Westminster.)

So even if 100 per cent of consultation respondents backed two questions it wouldn’t change David Cameron’s mind or stiffen Alex Salmond’s resolve.

Let’s be clear. The reason devo max cannot be a referendum option is that it would win hands down. So the politicians have agreed a compromise – why wait?

Why indeed. The tragedy is that no-one really expected any better.

But it’s not over yet. Elections turn on the views of undecided voters, not the party faithful. It’s time for the devo max-supporting 37 per cent and the two question-supporting 56 per cent to extract from Labour and the Lib Dems what the SNP government eventually could not – a guaranteed third option (albeit with an uncertain implementation date) that transfers taxation, economic and welfare powers to the Scottish Government in the event of either party forming a government at the next UK election.

Nothing less is acceptable now. And nothing less should prompt a “No” vote by any of those now disenfranchised by Scotland’s single question referendum.