Scottish independence referendum: One question, ten words, you choose

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SCOTLAND would embark on a future as an independent country in May 2016 if voters support the SNP’s plans to secede from the UK, Alex Salmond has declared.

On a historic day in Edinburgh, as the Scottish Government published its detailed proposals for a referendum to determine the country’s future, the First Minister announced his intention to put a simple question to voters in the autumn of 2014: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

Is there room for another question in Alex Salmond's independence referendum? Picture: Jane Barlow

Is there room for another question in Alex Salmond's independence referendum? Picture: Jane Barlow

Stating his case for independence, Mr Salmond used a statement in the Scottish Parliament to insist that “the people who care most about Scotland, that is the people who live, work and bring up their families in Scotland, should be the ones taking the decisions about our nation’s future.”

In a speech which quoted liberally from Robert Burns, Mr Salmond added: “I want Scotland to be independent, not because I think we are better than any other country, but because I know we are just as good as any other country.”

Mr Salmond, as expected, set out his preference for a straight question on independence, and backed plans to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, and to give the Electoral Commission a role in overseeing the ballot.

Publishing a detailed timetable for the process, the Scottish Government said that if voters said “yes” to independence, negotiations would then commence with the UK government on how to divide up the country’s assets and liabilities before the elections for the Holyrood parliament, scheduled for 5 May 2016. After that election “the next Scottish Parliament would . . . become the parliament of an independent Scotland,” the paper states.

The global media gathered at Edinburgh Castle yesterday

The global media gathered at Edinburgh Castle yesterday

The timetable for the referendum also shows that voters face a wait of almost two years before the SNP will publish its plans on how an independent Scotland would work, with a White Paper outlining issues such as the currency, defence, and foreign relations scheduled for publication in November 2013.

After that, in the summer of 2014, the government will set out a 16-week pre-referendum “regulated period”, which could push the referendum vote into November of that year.

Mr Salmond’s single question on independence was supported by constitutional experts last night. The UK government also welcomed the clarity of the question he proposes.

But there was less clarity over whether he will now opt to place a second question on “devo max”, on the ballot paper, giving people a chance to say whether they would like all taxes to be set and raised in Scotland, but to remain within the UK.

Mr Salmond’s document did not shed any light on a devo-max question, but in a press conference in Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall, he said the option should remain open if the consultation now shows up a desire within the public for it be included.

“If there is an alternative of maximum devolution which would command wide support in Scotland then it is only fair and democratic that option should be among the choices open to the people,” he said.

He then side-stepped questions over how he would judge whether or not such an option had support or not. UK government figures last night suggested the vagueness over a “devo-max” option meant it was likely to be binned, as they want.

Further negotiations between London and Edinburgh are now set to continue next week over the precise nature of the referendum. Mr Salmond acknowledged for the first time yesterday that he will be legally unable to ask his preferred straight question on independence without getting new powers from the UK government enabling Holyrood to do so – known as a Section 30 order.

It follows arguments by UK ministers, including the Advocate General Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that any referendum which seeks to alter the make-up of the UK is outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Mr Salmond, however, insists the Scottish Parliament does have the powers to hold a referendum with a less clear-cut question. He said: “If Westminster puts unacceptable conditions on a Section 30 order then we would have the option of putting forward the questions we have previously offered which we are confident are within the competence of the parliament as it current stands.”

In 2010, when the SNP last published a referendum bill, ministers proposed first asking a question on whether people wanted more powers, and then a second asking voters whether “the parliament’s powers should also be extended to enable independence to be achieved”. Such a question could fall foul of Electoral Commission rules.

The Scottish Secretary Michael Moore last night said he “welcomed” the consultation paper, saying that the UK government also backed the proposal for a short, direct question on independence.

It suggests there will be few demands from other parties to change the wording of Mr Salmond’s question.

But Mr Moore insisted that the Scottish Government did not have the powers to hold a referendum, with one or two questions, without getting powers from the UK government.

He said: “The Scottish Government indicate that they would have competence to ask certain questions such as the one proposed in 2010, or one about ‘devo max’. We have made clear that this is not correct.

“Any attempt to pass legislation for either an independence or ‘devo-max’ referendum would be outside the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament and liable to legal challenge.”

Mr Salmond also sought to head off claims by Labour that he had failed to provide guarantees that the Electoral Commission would be able to scrutinise the conduct of the referendum.

He said: “I cannot see there would be any serious doubt that such a question matches the Electoral Commission’s criteria for simplicity, clarity and allowing people a clear choice on independence. Whatever else happens, that question will be on the ballot paper.”

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: “We now need to move on from the process of the referendum so that we can look at the substantive issues surrounding the sovereignty of our nation. There are key questions on Scotland’s currency, membership of the EU, defence policy and energy policy that remain unanswered.”

Despite the vagueness over the devo-max option, civic groups insisted last night the option needed to stay on the table.

John Downie, director of Public Affairs, at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations said: “Now that both public consultations are under way, politicians ought to step back and give people a chance to think about what the referendum means to them and the type of Scotland they want to create.”

The Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, John McCormick, said: “Our priority is to ensure any referendum is well run, transparent and focused on voters and we will share our experience and expertise in running referendums when we respond to both parliaments on their respective consultations.”