Lesley Riddoch: Popular options struck off agenda

David Cameron has decreed that devo-max won't be an alternative choice for Scots
David Cameron has decreed that devo-max won't be an alternative choice for Scots
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Apparently we won’t be ‘allowed’ to have more than one question to decide our constitutional future

THE pursuit of a clear, unambiguous answer to a single referendum question started to look seductively appealing last week. Labour argued a devo-max option on the ballot paper would muddy the water. The Lib Dems said more than one question would create turmoil, confusion and ambiguity. What did it matter if a third of voters would be unable to support their preferred option? Clarity, not democracy, had become the new Holy Grail.

What a difference a weekend makes.

In the wake of David Cameron’s second clumsy intervention, the downside of clarity without fairness stands revealed. “Confusing” home rule (or devo-max) is not only off the ballot paper. According to the Prime Minister’s spokesman, it’s off the political agenda as well. The resulting choice for Scots is as “clear” as it is limited – either independence or the Scotland-Bill-tweaked status quo. No negotiation. No talks. No halfway house.

It feels like two Etonian fingers have been raised somewhere south of the Border. And yet Cameron has only confirmed the same limited referendum options endorsed by every political party north of it.

Party politics is failing to represent a sizeable chunk of Scottish opinion. That’s why a civic society group led by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) will enter the fray today arguing for wider, inclusive debate before any referendum question/s are finally framed.

It makes sense to calm down. Despite Cameron’s bombshell, the independence referendum will still be held in autumn 2014 and – as things stand – will still leave Scots guessing the real level of support for a fully articulated and costed “middle way”. That will eventually dent credibility more than the withholding of Section 30 legal consent.

Without a range of viable options and a full, animated, lively debate before it, a whole stack of Scots will have to vote tactically or not at all. Business as usual for UK PLC with its archaic “take-it-or-leave-it”, first past the post voting system. Not nearly good enough for Scotland, which is well beyond crude “binary” expressions of voter preference. And ironically, no two people know more about unfairly restricted referendum processes than Johann Lamont and Alex Salmond.

Back in 1979 the Scottish leader of devolution-delivering Labour actually voted no to devolution while the leader of the independence-promising SNP voted yes – or would have done if he had managed to vote at all.

David Torrance’s biography reveals the young Salmond was organiser of the West Lothian “Yes for Scotland” campaign in 1979 but was registered as an absent voter when he turned up to vote. Oops.

Johann Lamont’s no vote is explained in Mike Watson’s book Year Zero – an inside view of the Scottish Parliament: “I voted no… because I came from the strand on the left which saw the politics of nationalism as a diversion from more central aims in terms of economic policy, feminism and anti-racism. I came to see the parliament as a vehicle for democratic change in Scotland, offering more opportunities for women to get elected to a position where they could influence change.”

The other three current party leaders were too young to vote. So what does this tell us?

Scotland’s two main political leaders were forced to vote strategically when faced with the following “clarity providing” single question: Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect? If the parliament on offer had been beefier, Alex Salmond might have made sure he had a vote. If the debate had been wider Johann Lamont might have viewed the democratic attractions of devolution differently.

The 1979 referendum failed, not just because of the 40 per cent rule, but because voters didn’t like the single option on offer. About one third voted “no” (not beefy enough/ too beefy), a third voted “yes” (better than nothing/like the bill) and a third stayed at home (can’t be bothered/disappointed/I want independence). Result: clear as mud.

Ditto 2004 when Geordies “clearly” rejected English devolution. Or did they just reject Labour proposals for a toothless regional assembly? Who knows. But we got a “clear” result, didn’t we?

So what price “clarity” in 2014 if the referendum doesn’t contain all the popular options – whatever the present UK Prime Minister rules in or out? Stranger solutions are being discussed behind the scenes – what about a quick devo-max referendum next year or straight after the 2014 referendum, should independence fail? Do these mechanisms offer more “clarity” than using PR to rank the most popular options in a single vote?

Professor Elizabeth Meehan has suggested voters could rank the following propositions: 1 Scotland should become independent; 2 Scotland should remain part of the UK along present lines; 3 Scotland should have greater power and freedom in the UK (to be decided upon through extensive public consultation and participation). Ranking means voters not getting their first preference would be likely to get their second. What’s wrong with that?

Either/or decisions are for children – eat your food or you don’t get out to play. Choose science or history. Join the after-school club – or wait till we pick you up. Voters are not children – but how timorous, passive and childlike we have become. While Scots agonise about tackling more than a single referendum question, Icelanders will vote this year on a new constitution they have produced without any involvement from politicians. 550 scribes volunteered and were whittled down to 25 by a popular vote. Iceland’s Constitutional Council (ICC) then produced a blueprint which was amended by a forum of 950 randomly chosen citizens. Parliament made no changes and a referendum is due this year. Thus the people themselves have remedied democratic failings that hastened Iceland’s 2008 banking and economic collapse.

Do Scots have the courage to take our democratic project back from non-inclusive constitutional car mechanics and game-playing politicians? The biggest danger is that active Scots will see no connection between their daily struggles over housing, childcare and health and the lofty debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. Details do matter – but the best tool is generally selected after a thorough study of the job in hand.

We have two years. Let’s take our time and get it right. • ICC spokesperson Thorvaldur Gylfason is speaking in the Scottish Parliament on 29 March. Free tickets via www.nordichorizons.org