Watchdog hits out at independence confusion

Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: AP
Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: AP
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THE elections watchdog has said the public could be confused over how independence would affect Scotland and demanded the UK and Scottish governments provide clarity on key issues ahead of the referendum.

In a challenge to both sides, the Electoral Commission declared yesterday that the two sides should “inform people what will happen” if people either vote Yes or No to leaving the UK.

If the country backs independence, issues including the currency, EU membership, oil, the Trident nuclear deterrent, the division of the national debt and monetary policy will only be settled after the vote during intensive negotiations between the two governments and other international bodies.

Both sides have ruled out entering negotiations before a vote, with Prime Minister David Cameron reiterating yesterday that there was no way he would “pre-negotiate” with the SNP before people go to the polls.

In a surprise recommendation reflecting widespread public confusion over the choices on offer, the commission said that the UK and Scottish government should try to “clarify” the situation by seeking agreement on “how any competing claims made about independence during the campaigns would be resolved”.

The same clarity should be offered on events after a No vote, it said. It proposed that “both governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum”.

The SNP yesterday seized on the call to argue that UK ministers should agree to set out how each big question mark surrounding independence could be answered after a Yes vote, along with costings.

They also said the pro-UK side now had to spell out what might happen after a No vote, with all three pro-UK parties having raised the likelihood of further devolution.

But with the commission insisting it was not calling for negotiations to begin prior to a vote, UK government officials said the nationalists were “wanting us to do their work for them”, saying it was impossible to present options on what independence might mean as the SNP had yet to publish its white paper setting out the plan.

Pro-devolution politicians are also likely to press the SNP on what it would do if independence is voted down. Previously, First Minister Alex Salmond has said a No vote would end all prospects of independence “for a generation”.

The fresh row came as the commission yesterday rejected the SNP’s preferred wording on the question to be put to voters in 20 months’ time. Mr Salmond had wanted to ask people “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yes/No”.

However, the commission warned that use of the phrase “Do you agree . . . potentially encouraged people to vote Yes and should be replaced by more neutral wording”.

It put forward its own question “Should Scotland be an Independent country? Yes/No”.

Some experts continued to claim last night that the wording was slanted, because it would not specifically state that Scotland would be leaving the UK.

However, the commission found that people understood this was the case. Despite the SNP’s question being altered, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday she was “particularly delighted” by the wording.

The SNP also accepted the watchdog’s decision greatly to increase spending limits above those that the Scottish government wanted. The limits will see both sides being able to spend just under £3m each in the 16-week period prior to next year’s referendum.

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, said: “We have rigorously tested the proposed question, speaking to a wide range of people across Scotland. Any referendum question must be, and be seen to be, neutral. People told us that they felt the words ‘do you agree’ could lead voters towards voting Yes.”

Mr McCormick said that people had a “clear understanding” that voting Yes to independence “meant being separate from the UK”.

He added: “But they did want factual information in advance about what will happen after the referendum. We’re asking the UK and Scottish governments to provide that clarity and we’ll then make sure it gets to voters as part of our public-awareness campaign.”

Turning to the issue of public information, it warns that a contest which only sees both sides issuing competing claims “could cause confusion” for voters with so many issues certain to be unresolved by the time people go to the polls.

The commission said: “Although we would not expect the terms of independence to be agreed before the vote, clarity about how the terms of independence will be decided would help voters understand how the competing claims made by campaigners before the referendum will be resolved.”

It suggests that an agreement by the two governments on this post-referendum process could be included in a leaflet to be sent to homes before the vote, aimed at helping people understand more what Yes and No actually mean.

Mr McCormick later said he believed this could be a “simple statement” setting out a timeframe telling people what happens “the morning after” the vote. Some people who had taken part in the commission’s research said they were puzzled over who would be prime minister after a vote and whether a general election might be required.

Ms Sturgeon claimed in response that there was now a “duty” on London and Edinburgh to begin discussions on how the process would follow a Yes vote.

She said: “There is no reason why we cannot agree in advance the key issues that will require to be negotiated, what the main options are in each of these areas and what facts and figures will inform such negotiations.”

However, UK government officials said talks were pointless until the SNP had set out its own independence proposal in a white paper later this autumn.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said he would be “happy” to meet SNP ministers to discuss a series of UK government papers on the UK and independence, which are soon to be published.

“Once this has been published, we will be happy to discuss our paper with the Scottish government,” he said.

Meanwhile, both the Better Together and Yes Scotland campaigns also said they would accept the commission’s recommendations in full.

Labour MP and Better Together leader Alastair Darling said: “I am pleased that the impartial Electoral Commission has rejected the fixed referendum question which Alex Salmond demanded.

“They have also rejected the nationalist’s attempts to silence their opponents by setting spending limits that would have given them an unfair advantage.”

Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland, said: “I am very pleased with this question, which officially designates the Yes and No campaigns, and with the proposed funding arrangements.”

l Additional reporting by David Walsh.