Scottish independence: Scots ‘to be asked one referendum question’

How far will UK government's consultation advance the independence debate? Picture: Julie Bull
How far will UK government's consultation advance the independence debate? Picture: Julie Bull
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SCOTTISH Secretary Michael Moore has declared he is confident of delivering a referendum that poses a straightforward Yes/No question on independence – thereby consigning the devo-max option to history.

Mr Moore said the outcome of the UK government’s consultation on the poll had reinforced his argument for a single question without the complication of a second question asking voters to support more Holyrood powers short of outright independence.

'Independence referendum ballot must have two questions.' Picture: Jane Barlow

'Independence referendum ballot must have two questions.' Picture: Jane Barlow

Read the UK Government’s independence referendum consultation in full

Speaking after the UK government’ referendum consultation revealed that 75 per cent of 3,000 respondents believed Scotland’s constitutional status should be decided by one question, the Scottish Secretary said it was “really hard” to see where the argument for a devo-max option was coming from.

As he gears up for crucial talks with Alex Salmond over how the referendum will be framed, Mr Moore said he was confident the SNP would be denied the fall-back position of a devo-max question promising more Holyrood powers.

In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Moore admitted that securing a single question was the “highest priority” for the UK government, following strong suggestions that the SNP would like a devo-max option to be included on the ballot.

Alex Salmond with apprentice Sophie Phillips during visit to Kilmarnock College. Picture: PA

Alex Salmond with apprentice Sophie Phillips during visit to Kilmarnock College. Picture: PA

“We need clarity and decisiveness of the outcome. I am confident that a single question gives you that, and it is after all what the SNP mandate for the election was for,” Mr Moore said.

“It is something that has broad support from the political parties and the private citizens and organisations who have responded to our consultation. So I think it is really hard to see where the other argument is coming from.”

Mr Moore added: “The two governments have got to come to an agreement. We have got to sit down around the table with the First Minister at the earliest opportunity. I think that, given where the SNP and where the Scottish Government start and where we are and what we found in the consultation, this ought to be straightforward. I am confident that we will get there (a single question), given the weight of the arguments and who has been making them.”

Although the official SNP line is that Mr Salmond favours one question on independence, the Scottish Government’s own referendum consultation has asked people for their views on a second question to deliver devo-max to the Scottish Parliament.

The mention of a second question in the Scottish Government’s consultation, which is still taking place, has led to strong suspicions Mr Salmond would like to present the devo-max option to the people.

Mr Salmond himself has suggested there ought to be two questions if there is demand from “civic Scotland” for devo-max – a view that led to the number of questions becoming a bone of contention between the two governments.

Including devo-max would give the SNP a safety net of more powers if, as polls suggest, Scotland rejects full independence.

Mr Moore said: “The central issue here is about whether or not Scotland should or should not be independent.

“I passionately believe we should stay part of the United Kingdom, but I think the way to resolve that is with a single question on independence. Independence is different from devolution; we shouldn’t muddle the two up in one ballot paper.”

On the timing of the referendum, 70 per cent of those who responded to the UK government consulation agreed the vote should take place “sooner rather than later”, including a large number of businesses based in Scotland.

Mr Moore has outlined his own timetable that would see a 2013 referendum, a position that, he believes, would limit damage done to business by constitutional uncertainty.

Some 86 per cent agreed the Electoral Commission watchdog should have a role in overseeing an independence referendum, and 71 per cent expressed the view that those resident in Scotland should be entitled to vote in a referendum.

On the SNP’s proposal to extend voting to 16- and 17-year-olds, 44 per cent believed the franchise should be extended to include younger voters, while 47 per cent believed it should remain at 18 and older.

Despite the closeness, the UK government stuck to its line that the franchise should not be extended for a one-off referendum.

The SNP parliamentary business secretary, Bruce Crawford, criticised Westminster for not subjecting the responses to independent analysis.

Mr Crawford also seized on an admission by Mr Moore that 740 of the respondents – more than a quarter – had used forms of words that were the same as suggested responses offered on the Labour Party website.

The Scotland Office pointed out that the SNP offered its own form of words to help its supporters respond to its referendum consultation.

Mr Crawford said: “Mr Moore has underlined why Westminster is in no position to dictate the terms or timescale of Scotland’s referendum.”

Earlier this week, the SNP were accused of performing a humiliating about-turn over the conduct of the Scottish Government’s consultation, when it was decided anonymous responses would be discounted.

Labour discovered people could respond to the consultation as many times as they wanted without disclosing their identity or an e-mail address. Respondents to the UK government’s consultation could remain anonymous, but had to include a postal or e-mail address.

Mr Moore said: “We have followed robust processes throughout.”

The outcome of the UK government’s consultation also revealed Westminster ministers do not feel the need to impose their own referendum on Scotland at the moment.

Some in the coalition parties have suggested that a UK government-imposed referendum could be the “nuclear option” if is felt that the Scottish Government is taking too long to hold the vote or goes ahead with two questions.

Read the UK Government’s independence referendum consultation in full