Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Electoral Commission's New Broom

Is it just me, or has Douglas Fraser, Scottish Political Editor of The Herald, missed the real significance of his story from this morning?

"A referendum on independence could lead to unfair and unbalanced campaigning by political parties if it were called by Holyrood, it has emerged".

That part of it isn't a new story, I'm afraid. Under the direction of Prof. Sir Neil McIntosh, the Electoral Commission in Scotland had a public position, perhaps one born of diplomatic politesse towards the former Lib Lab coalition but a public position nonetheless, that it was outwith its scope to oversee any Independence referendum organised by Holyrood, meaning that any rules over campaign expenditure would not be enforceable. This I know, because I once asked Prof. McIntosh that very question when I worked at SNP HQ.

No, the big story is surely that in interviewing Prof. McIntosh's successor in Scotland, former BBC Scotland Controller John McCormick, there appears to have been significant movement from this earlier position on oversight of a referendum. Viz and to wit:

"If the Scottish Government came to us for help, advice, or to run the referendum, then we would be willing to do that," he explained.

That's quite a departure, though no less welcome for that. Nonetheless, this is liklely to have two very significant outcomes. Firstly, following their contortions regarding the bringing it on or otherwise of a referendum, Labour spokespeople have been spinning frantically that they support a referendum - it's the SNP which doesn't want an immediate vote, but that anyway, the SNP's proposed question would be unacceptable, so they won't commit to supporting a bill.

Labour has yet to say what would, in its collective view (assuming such a thing exists right now), constitute an acceptable form of wording for the question. Now that the Electoral Commission is happy to get involved, including over the wording of the question, they really are running out of excuses not to back whatever emerges.

Secondly, and potentially even more significant, is that if the Electoral Commission were to oversee the referendum at the request of the Scottish Government, both sides would then be subject to spending limits. Now, Wendy Alexander's erratic nature notwithstanding, who would have thought a year ago that a minority government would have looked this likely to get a majority in parliament for an independence vote, far less make sure that the campaign couldn't be drowned in floods of cash from South of the Border?

That, my friends, looks like a bit of a result for the SNP. It also looks like Douglas Fraser has underplayed what would have been one of the political scoops of the year - but than again, that's probably why I don't have a job as a mainstream political journalist.

15 comments:

Normal Mouth said...

Labour has yet to say what would...constitute an acceptable form of wording for the question

Iain Gray was reported in the Scotsman last week as suggesting:

"Do you wish that Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom: yes or no?"

would be Labour's preferred wording.

Richard Thomson said...

I've heard a few Labour suggestions about what the wording could be, NM. The trouble with that example is that it's not actually the United Kingdom people are being asked to leave. Legally, the independence to be negotiated would be from the 1707 Union of the Parliaments rather than the 1603 Union of the Crowns.

Tory MSP David McLetchie has made an interesting point in the past, to the effect that the reservation of the constitution under the Scotland Act means that a question as direct as the one envisaged by Iain Gray probably couldn't be put in any case. See this for more:

http://news.scotsman.com/latestnews/Legal-setback-to-Wendy39s-39straightchoice39.4070893.jp

Normal Mouth said...

It seems to point towards a UK-sponsored referendum.

Provided that a commitment were given to hold one, would the SNP have an objection to that?

Richard Thomson said...

Ah, the short questions are always the trickiest :-)

The way I read it is that we seem to be heading for a Scottish-organised vote on Electoral Commission terms. That certainly appears to be what the Scottish EC is now shaping for.

As for a UK organised referendum... well, there doesn't seem to be much appetite. I'd never say never, but providing the question, financing and timing was fair; the electoral roll up to date and there were no funny franchises; then if the alternative were no referendum, I'd have no objections in principle. However, if a Holyrood Referendum bill were 'spiked' for the sake of it by the Secretary of State or by the Advocate General so that a Westminster initiated vote could take place instead, then I'd certainly be questioning of their motives for so doing.

Unless something dramatic happens, though, I just can't see a Westminster initiated vote happening. Both Labour and Conservative in Westminster are against. Only the Conservatives could credibly change their minds between now and 2010, but that's when the Scottish Government is planning on holding their own vote anyway.

I think it would look more than a little opportunistic for the Tories, having consistently opposed a vote on Independence, to then try and gate-crash the one which everyone is expecting and preparing for.

Normal Mouth said...

It's certainly a fruity one. The SP (which as you note seems likely to go through with its plan) can only hold an advisory referendum on opening negotiations while the WP (which as you note lacks the appetite) can hold one on the substantive question (leaving aside the somewhat recondite point about whether voters are being asked whether Scotland should leave the UK).

I recall Alex Salmond favouring a simple yes/no substantive question in 1999, but times change.

A stumbling block for the SP approach is be the wording as well as the substantiveness. Assuming that there is agreement to hold one on opening the negotiations the SNP favour a question with the words "Scottish Government" and "independent state". Am I right in thinking that Labour and others are likely to oppose these?

If so, how about:

"Scottish Ministers should negotiate a settlement with the government of a United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent and separate state."

Richard Thomson said...

A stumbling block for the SP approach is be the wording as well as the substantiveness. Assuming that there is agreement to hold one on opening the negotiations the SNP favour a question with the words "Scottish Government" and "independent state". Am I right in thinking that Labour and others are likely to oppose these?

Labour, or at least Iain Gray and Malcolm Chisholm, have both said that the following question, would be unacceptable in their view:

"I agree/ disagree that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state."

If so, how about:

"Scottish Ministers should negotiate a settlement with the government of a United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent and separate state."


The word 'independent' needs to be in there, as the most accurate description. After all, people understand that Germany is independent, as are Denmark and Sweden. No-one would describe them routinely as being 'seperate'.

If 'seperate' is intended to give additional meaning, it could only be to try and skew people against an easily understood idea of independence. However, if 'seperate' can be taken to mean the same as 'independent', then its inclusion would simply be tautology.

Either way, the inclusion of 'seperate' seems unneccesary to me.

Normal Mouth said...

people understand that Germany is independent, as are Denmark and Sweden. No-one would describe them routinely as being 'seperate'.

True, but then these countries are already independent and some have not left a pre-existing union to become so.

If 'seperate' is intended to give additional meaning, it could only be to try and skew people against an easily understood idea of independence.

I disagree. I think that to omit it would be to risk not spelling out what is being asked of the electorate, namely a Scotland out with its existing union with England.

It could, after all be argued that independence is not on offer, but rather the dissolution of one union (the UK) in order to make another (with the EU). I can't speak for Labour but personally I would be happy to see independent used despite this qualm provided that the concept of separation or seccession was also made clear.

Richard Thomson said...

I disagree. I think that to omit it would be to risk not spelling out what is being asked of the electorate, namely a Scotland out with its existing union with England.

It could, after all be argued that independence is not on offer, but rather the dissolution of one union (the UK) in order to make another (with the EU). I can't speak for Labour but personally I would be happy to see independent used despite this qualm provided that the concept of separation or seccession was also made clear.


I think ‘Independence’ as a concept within the context of the EU is pretty clearly understood. Since Scotland is already in the EU, albeit as part of the UK, the ‘leaving one union to join another’ argument not meaning independence doesn’t really hold.

The most accurate form of words would not include any reference to leaving the UK. Instead, it would probably go along the lines of:

“Do you agree that the Union of the Parliaments of 1707 between Scotland and England should be dissolved, thereby also dissolving the present devolved Scottish Parliament, and a sovereign Scottish Parliament established within the context of an independent nation state within the European Union, with Her Majesty The Queen, and her heirs and successors continuing as Head of State?”

That, however, would just be a complete mess and would confuse everyone…

Ideas of Civilisation said...

I’m not sure the question is massively important. Whenever (and if) a referendum is held the absolutely huge media coverage which would precede it would leave people in no doubts whatsoever about what they were voting for.

I know that there is always a debate about the phrasing when discussing opinion poll responses but that is surely based on whoever is setting the poll wanting a pre-determined outcome and setting the questions and information given accordingly?

I’m sure I remember two You Gov (although it may have been a different company) polls last year which were conducted on the same day for the SNP and Daily Telegraph on the issue of independence. Unsurprisingly both polls gave different answers which coincidentally suited the views of the group that has commissioned the poll but contradicted each other!

I think the question is a smokescreen. People are not stupid and would know what they were voting on.

Richard Thomson said...

That's a fair point.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if the wording was that Scotland become an independent kingdom, it would emphasise that it was 1707 that was being unwound.

Fergus

Richard Thomson said...

Perhaps. I think the existing proposed wording does the job admirably, though.

Assuming the Electoral Commission agrees, and I can't see why it wouldn't, that then puts certain new converts to the idea of a referendum in a tricky position politically.

Normal Mouth said...

People are not stupid and would know what they were voting on.

This is a charming, intuitive but naive argument, if you don't mind me saying so.

People are not stupid. But words matter. And in this context they are laden with meaning. The SNP want "independence" because they know that it conveys the most positive sense of what they are proposing. They object to "separate" because they think this is a negative connotation. Doubtless, there is a mirror image for pro-unionists.

So the wording does matter. I think a question that stresses that Scotland would become independent, but that to do she would separate or secede from her current union is an appropriate compromise that signposts clearly the "good" and the "bad" of what is proposed.

What I wonder is what will happen if the opposition insist on such a wording. Would the SNP let their bill die on the ditch over such a thing?

Ideas of Civilisation said...

Normal Mouth,

No, I have no objection to being called naive!

I would agree with your analysis if the question was not going to be accompanied by absolutely HUGE media coverage and political campaigning in the run up to the vote. I also subscribe to the idea that the vast majority of voters make up their mind before getting to the polling station, further limiting the impact of the exact terminology used for the question.

I remember the coverage of the 1997 referendum to establish devolution in the first place and that had fairly significant coverage, shown by the fact that the ‘Yes’ votes for the two questions (1. set up Parliament? 2. have tax-varying powers?) had similar backing, meaning people had understood this nuance. If the plebiscite was to establish independence the media coverage would be even greater.

I don’t believe that most people in Scotland are overly fixated in the constitutional question – I think it is something which regularly preoccupies political people but few beyond that. But I do think people take an interest when they believe it will materially affect them which is why they would want to know exactly what this would mean for them and their families. Of course there will be an emotional vote for many people but in this case the question is also largely irrelevant.

However your point about what Scotland being ‘independent’ might look like is a valid one which has yet to be fully articulated. Unless I’m wrong SNP policy (post-independence) is to have referendums on the Queen still being Scottish head-of-state and to join the Euro (which the SNP would campaign in favour of).

The Braveheart idea of genuine independence i.e. being completely isolated from the rest of the world clearly is no longer feasible (although there are those who argue for this). Nevertheless if you look at the Scottish Parliament’s current powers and exclude those mechanisms which joining the Euro would take away, I think more needs to be done to explain to people just what the purpose of independence is.

That’s a more significant question than a ballot paper which most people will have made their minds up on before entering the polling booth anyway.

Stephen Glenn said...

I’m not sure the question is massively important. Whenever (and if) a referendum is held the absolutely huge media coverage which would precede it would leave people in no doubts whatsoever about what they were voting for.

Now don't get mewrong here, we're talking about the same electorate that had major problems putting their marks in the right places last May, despite everybody's best efforts (possible exception Labour)at clarifying. Admittedly they will be getting only getting one rather than three votes.

But seeing as the media was trying to get across a little of how people should have be using their votes in the run up to May maybe we shouldn't expect the non-poilitcal anorak general populace to be as intriqued into the goings on of the debate as no doubt all of us who have commented here will be. Maybe we do need a little clarity in the actual question as to just what the vote would entail.

Of course as Richard has said the short questions are always the hardest to draft.