CONSENSUS is a rare commodity in Scottish politics but in the debate over whether there should be one question or two on an independence ballot, Scotland’s political parties are lining up in support of a single, clear question on independence.
That is what the SNP pledged in its manifesto last year. That is what Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats support, and last week the single-question ballot received the endorsement of Margo MacDonald, a key figure in Scotland’s constitutional debate.
This should be a time of celebration for Nationalists. The political constellation is aligning to deliver the referendum for which they have campaigned for decades. And yet, the SNP leadership is hedging its bets. If the SNP waters down its manifesto pledge and the Scottish Government seeks a second, “more powers” question, committed Nationalists will have greater reasons than most to feel aggrieved. After all, the SNP’s founding objective is to achieve Scottish independence. It has campaigned for decades for this outcome and, more recently, for a straight Yes/No referendum to deliver it. It strikes those of us outside the party as extraordinary that the SNP leadership is backing away from its chance to deliver independence. I cannot guess what it feels like to those within it.
There are many problems with a second question, but Margo MacDonald’s interview in last week’s Scotland on Sunday hit the nail on the head. She reminded everybody that the Scottish Government only has a mandate to put a straight question on independence to the people of Scotland. In arguing that a second question should be ditched, she pointed out that more powers are not in the gift of the SNP. That is true: decisions for further devolution are for the whole of the UK to consider and deliver. The Scottish Government cannot unilaterally deliver new powers without agreement. They are well aware of that. So the ongoing effort by the SNP leadership to promote a second question on further devolution seems like an admission that the party cannot win the arguments for independence.
Independence is an issue separate to the important and increasingly lively debate about more powers: independence must be dealt with on its own merits. That’s the only way to get a clear answer to the most important issue facing Scotland in more than 300 years. Those of us who believe that Scotland is safer and stronger within the UK have the confidence to support a single-question referendum. The question for the SNP leadership is simple: do you?
Another reason why the parties have coalesced around a single question referendum is because it is the only credible approach – there is no second question to ask. To date there are no proposals for further devolution around which to frame a second question. That is not to say that people are not thinking hard on how to develop Scotland’s powers. The SNP may be the only party in Scotland that has failed to play a role in collective efforts to define devolved powers for Scotland. But elsewhere ideas are once again being worked on by political parties, civic Scotland, academics and others.
The Liberal Democrats’ Home Rule Commission is working on plans to transfer yet more powers from London to Edinburgh, and we will seek to build consensus around those proposals. Indeed, all of the pro-UK political parties have signalled their willingness to devolve further powers after the issue of independence is settled. That means the parties working on their own proposals, coming together with business and civil society, forging a consensus and then legislating. The process of further devolution must be conducted in this way: it must be designed to meet the needs of people in Scotland, not to serve as a get-out clause for a Nationalist campaign that has lost its nerve.
Right now the UK Government is continuing with the largest ever transfer of powers from London to the Scottish Parliament. Policy powers were handed over last week and over the next four years we will continue the work to deliver billions of pounds worth of new tax and borrowing powers that will see Holyrood control areas such as how much income tax we all pay and how much tax is paid on house sales in Scotland. We are giving the Scottish Parliament more powers as all the pro- UK parties promised we would at the last general election.
For us, an empowered Scotland within a strong and secure UK is our number one priority. It offers Scots the best of both worlds – the chance to shape our own domestic politics while remaining part of the UK family. So, the attraction of a two-question referendum is clear only for those nationalists who believe that they cannot win a single-question ballot. They can muddy the waters, confuse the issues, and hope for a Yes vote on the second question to save their blushes on the first. Then they can claim that independence is still viable – that the two-question referendum makes it impossible to conclude that separation has been rejected – that yet another referendum must be held in future years.
But this referendum cannot be framed for political advantage; it must be shaped and conducted in the interests of the Scottish people. They deserve a clear answer to a straightforward question on the issue of independence, and a resolution to this debate. Just this week, two SNP MPs were clear that they agree with this approach and they deserve credit for their stance. The SNP leadership should listen to them, and confirm that it is with the Scottish consensus for a single-question referendum. That was the SNP’s manifesto pledge. There are plenty of us who are happy to help them deliver it.
• Liberal Democrat MP Michael Moore is Secretary of State for Scotland