Fears over pressure on ‘civic Scotland’ to back devo-max

Alex Salmond suggested a two-question referendum. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond suggested a two-question referendum. Picture: Getty
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THE leaders of a civic Scotland campaign to give greater powers to Holyrood have been warned they must remain politically neutral, amid fears Alex Salmond is leaning on them to back a second referendum question.

When he unveiled his referendum consultation, the First Minister said he would go for a ballot with both an independence and “devo-max” option – if there was enough support for the latter from “civic” Scotland.

Within days, a consortium describing itself as civic Scotland and made up of trade unionists, church leaders and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) said it was to launch a campaign to examine the issue of constitutional change.

Unionists, who believe the referendum should be restricted to a single question on independence, suspect the SNP is exerting influence on civic Scotland to persuade it to back devo-max.

Its inclusion in the referendum would give the SNP a fall-back option if, as the polls suggest, the Scottish electorate says No to breaking up the UK.

As the campaign prepares for its launch on Monday, a senior figure within the voluntary sector has already expressed concern about the language being used by his colleagues when the consortium was being set up.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, who is on the SCVO board of trustees, said he was aware of the perception the campaign had been established in order to come to the conclusion devo-max ought to be included on the ballot paper.

He said he had brought up the issue of political neutrality after receiving an e-mail that mentioned the new organisation in the context of the referendum.

“This is something that I was concerned about and sought assurances that the organisation is absolutely 100 per cent divorced from the political storm and the legality of the referendum and any question that might appear in that,” Mr Cole-Hamilton said.

He said he had “put down a marker” calling for neutrality, adding: “We have to be very, very careful about the language that we use regarding the referendum, because this is a highly politically charged issue and I don’t feel comfortable. I think we can have this discussion and it is appropriate that we do, but it has to be divorced from the issue of a referendum.”

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Mr Cole-Hamilton, the head of policy for a national children’s charity, said that he was now satisfied that the importance of neutrality was understood.

But he warned it would be difficult for the SCVO to represent the views of its members on such a sensitive subject. “It is a very divisive issue and we couldn’t claim to speak for the organisations that we represent by coming down on one side of an argument incurring such political wrath at the moment,” he said.

But others were less relaxed about the role to be played by the campaign, backed by the Church of Scotland and the STUC as well as the SCVO. In the past, the SCVO’s public affairs director, John Downie, has written: “For this discussion or the referendum itself to be shackled by an overly simplistic Yes/No approach would be a travesty for democracy. The referendum must include all the options.”

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman David McLetchie said: “I think it is absolutely no coincidence that such a campaign springs up after such a short period of time. I do not believe it to be spontaneous. I am sure there has been a bit of strong guidance going on from the SNP.

“This group has to ensure it genuinely represents its members and member groups and that it does not turn out to be a body that does Alex Salmond’s bidding in promoting a second question that will simply confuse the fundamental issue – of whether we remain in or out of the UK.”

But an SCVO spokeswoman insisted the campaign would be “completely neutral” and “consider everything”.

There has been some speculation suggesting Henry McLeish, the former First Minister and a supporter of devo-max, might lead the campaign. Yesterday, however, he denied he had been approached said he was not offering himself as a candidate to lead civic Scotland’s campaign.

The Rev Ewan Aitken, a former Labour leader of Edinburgh city council and secretary of the Kirk’s church and society committee, has also been closely involved with the consortium.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested Prime Minister David Cameron believes the whole UK should be given a say if devo-max is included in the referendum, as any change in, say, Scotland’s rate of corporation tax would impact on the rest of the country.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We remain open to the prospect of another option in the referendum, and it is good to see civic Scotland engaging so enthusiastically with the debate on Scotland’s future.”

KEY PLAYERS

EWAN Aitken, a Church of Scotland minister, was elected as a Labour councillor to Edinburgh City Council in 1999.

In 2006 he was elected council leader and following the election in May 2007 was leader of the Labour group until he stepped down in 2008. Was unsuccessful in his bid last year to become MSP for Eastern Edinburgh and oust justice minister Kenny MacAskill.

ALEX Cole-Hamilton, a leading light in the Scottish Liberal Democrats first came into the policitcal spotlight with his campaigning to end tuition fees while president of Aberdeen University’s Students’ Representative Council. Stood unsuccessfully as candidate for Edinburgh Central at last year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections.

DAVID McLetchie, a former solicitor, is Conservative MSP for Lothian. Took over as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in1999 but was forced to resign in 2005 following controversy over his expenses claims.

JOHN Downie, is director of public affairs at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. His high-profile remit includes liaising with politicians and running both the organisation’s policy and research team and its communications and campaigns team.

Dr Alison Elliot, OBE, is convener of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. She is a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the first woman to be elected to the post. She worked as psychology lecturer and was a founding board member of the Palestine Festival of Literature.

HENRY McLeish, served as the second First Minister of Scotland from October 2000 to November 2001 following the sudden death of Donald Dewar. Resigned following a financial scandal. Former Labour MP for Centra Fife from 1987 to 2001, he was elected MSP for Central Fife 1999-2003. A former association footballer.

ALEX Salmond is the fourth First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party. He won the Aberdeenshire East constituency at last May’s election, when the SNP won a majority of seats of at Holyrood. He was re-elected unopposed for a second term as First Minister.