Scottish Independence Referendum

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Scottish Independence Referendum

The Parliamentary Information Office is, with constitutional pundits generally,
following closely the progress of the Scottish National Party's attempts to hold a
referendum on Scottish independence.

The Scottish Affairs Committee yesterday published the fourth report in its series of reports
about the referendum on separation for Scotland.

This follows on from a Report last week on the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament
to hold a referendum on separation. The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select
Committee in that report said that the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that the
Scottish Parliament cannot presently legislate to hold a referendum on separation, and that
agreement should be reached between Holyrood and Westminster to create the necessary
legal powers. Otherwise Scotland risks indefinite legal and political wrangling and
uncertainty over its future.

Commenting on yesterday's report, Chair of the Committee Ian Davidson MP said:

"It is important that any referendum on Scotland's future is clear and decisive. The
Committee is of the view that a three option choice would be neither.

"We were surprised how complex the process of a three sided referendum would be; in
particular how the wording and layout of the question, and the method of counting, could
affect the result. This, together with the uncertainty of how a triangular context could be
regulated, opens up the prospect of interminable wrangling over process at the expense of
debate on the substance of Separation.

"We believe evolving devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people, as shown in the
1997 referendum and the General Election of 2010. Nevertheless, those who support
Separation have, by gaining a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, won the
right to put their alternative vision to the vote.

"There is no such mandate for any, as yet identified, pattern of devolution and we believe
that while Separation can be agreed unilaterally, changes to the Devolution Settlement must
be negotiated multilaterally, consensually and in good faith.

"We believe a clear and decisive referendum requires a binary choice and urge both
Governments to get on with it."

Report Summary

Widening the number of options to be put in front of the voters in a referendum may at first
sight be an attractive proposition: but it suffers from a number of fatal defects. Leaving aside
the charges of political opportunism which can quite fairly be laid against the Scottish
Government in pursuing this option, the evidence we heard shows very clearly the
challenges and defects of the notion.

The Scottish Government does not have a mandate to hold a referendum on greater
devolution. What it promised was a referendum on separation, and we agree they should be
enabled to hold that. It is for those political parties and organisations which genuinely
support devolution to make proposals for developing it, and propose how put those plans
before the electorate.

It is perfectly clear that there are, at present, no developed plans for further devolution. In
particular, the idea of "devolution max" is no more than a phrase in search of content. No
plans exist, and none are in prospect which could properly be put forward to the voters in
any referendum.

A referendum is a way in which the voters make a decision, or a choice. It is entirely
appropriate to deal with the question of separation. But changing the devolution settlement is
a different kind of choice. A referendum could only deal with the question of more powers if
there were a proposal, and if the voters could be assured that, were they to support it, it
would be put into effect. That means such a proposal has to be developed and broadly
agreed in advance in the UK and the Scottish governments and then. No such proposal
exists, and none is being developed.

The Parliamentary Information Office will watch developments with considerable interest and
continue to report on this and other constitutional issues.