NEGOTIATIONS between the Scottish and UK governments over the independence referendum have been full of posturing, bluster, bet-hedging and brinkmanship. It has not been the finest hour of the politicians on either side of the argument.
But, perhaps mercifully, the negotiations seem to be nearing a denouement. David Cameron is said to be prepared to offer Alex Salmond a deal, making a number of historic concessions, including the SNP’s demand that 16 and 17-year-olds are included in the franchise. Salmond would be given the legislative authority to hold the referendum; he would have control of the timing of the vote; and Westminster would not stand in the way of the SNP’s preferred wording for the question, provided it passed muster with the Electoral Commission. The price for these concessions: a one-question referendum that asks a simple yes or no on independence, with no second question on a variant of devolution.
This newspaper has always argued that the UK Government should not dictate the terms of Scotland’s independence referendum. The SNP Government has a mandate to hold this vote and should be allowed to do so on its own terms. It is unacceptable for Cameron to offer Salmond the legislative competence to hold this vote, but with strings attached. Having said that, if this is indeed the deal on the table, Salmond may actually be tempted to take it. It may offer him the best available prospect of a referendum that is legally watertight, easily understood by the voter and free of the potential for confusion and mischief. It could also signal the start of an independence referendum campaign where the issues can be debated with a degree of clarity that is not currently possible.
This newspaper has yet to declare its position on the referendum, but for many years we have backed a far stronger form of devolution within the UK. One of the key questions in Scottish politics at the moment is this: what is the best way to offer that option to the Scottish people? Is a second question necessary to achieve this aim? Would it in fact be better if more devolution became the alternative to independence in a straight, one-question, Yes-No referendum? There are problems with each of these alternative strategies. A growing body of opinion suggests a two-question referendum could be vulnerable to legal challenge, both in terms of its process and its outcome. And who would decide what variant of devolution was on the ballot paper? On the other hand, having more devolution as effectively the No option in a referendum would require a far greater degree of agreement on the part of the pro-UK parties than they have recently shown themselves capable of. Whether they are capable of reaching such an agreement before 2014 is just one of the imponderables that must be weighed in the balance as this process approaches its conclusion. The analysis by our political editor Eddie Barnes on Page 13 certainly shows how far Scottish Labour are from agreeing a coherent position on Scotland’s future.
The Scottish Government is taking great care at the moment not to narrow its options. The message it is sending out this weekend is that it has yet to decide whether the referendum should be one question or two. We await the result of its referendum consultation for further clues. What is clear, however, is that in the long run-up to the autumn 2014 vote on Scotland’s future, the phoney war may be about the end, and the real war begin.
Badge of dishonour
THERE are many markers of a civilised society and one of them, in Scotland, is the Blue Badge Disability Scheme, which allows disabled people and their families to park in areas where they want to be and within easy reach of where they want to go. There can be few able-bodied drivers who have never experienced a tiny pang of jealousy when being forced to manoeuvre around city streets in search of a rare – and increasingly expensive – parking place. But as our investigation today shows, the Blue Badge Scheme, which was brought in for the very best of motives, is being widely abused. The badges are being carelessly loaned, or stolen and even forged, in our cities and towns.
Snap surveys have found that around half of all cars parked in some central areas of Glasgow were displaying a Blue Badge, disadvantaging both able-bodied and genuine disabled drivers alike. It is up to councils to police the scheme effectively, not least because of the thousands of pounds of parking revenue being lost every year that could be spent on other public services. In Glasgow alone, officials have estimated this could amount to £450,000. Edinburgh City Council has set up a team specially tasked with cracking down on the abuses, with some success, and every council should now be following its lead.