A consultation response
JACK MCCONNELL shares his response to the current consultations on the independence referendum.
Rt Hon Alex Salmond MSP
First Minister of Scotland
The Scottish Parliament
Edinburgh EH99 1SP
Rt Hon Michael Moore MP
Secretary of State for Scotland
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
Dear Alex and Michael,
I have chosen to respond jointly to your consultations on an independence referendum for Scotland for the sake of consistency but also to urge you both to reach agreement on the details of an independence referendum in the national interest of Scotland.
Clearly, I am commenting on this issue as a former First Minister of Scotland, but, as you are both aware, I was also involved for many years in the Scottish Constitutional Convention and I played a leading role both publicly and behind the scenes in the organisation of the Yes-Yes campaign in the 1997 Scottish Parliament Referendum. I hope my experience, which has influenced this response, is helpful to you both.
Before addressing specific questions, I want to say clearly that I believe compromise between the Scottish government and the UK government on this important issue is vital for Scotland at this time.
I was proud to leave the office of First Minister having steered Scotland to several quarters of higher Annual GDP growth than the rest of the UK and lower unemployment than the UK. Unfortunately, today, our unemployment rate has risen above the rest of the UK and for over a year our annual GDP growth has been below the rest of the UK.
Uncertainty and disagreement over the timing of a referendum can only delay our recovery from this economic slide. So I hope that both the Scottish Government and the UK Government will be willing to compromise on all of the key issues to ensure we have a clear outcome in a referendum and an outcome that is accepted by everyone as the fair result of a fair campaign.
I am asking both Governments to avoid any decisions on this proposed referendum that would leave the public feeling that the rules of engagement have been designed to push them in one direction or the other. In Scotland’s national interest, on the questions asked in the consultation documents, I submit the following comments:
Given the current economic situation, and the importance of this constitutional choice for Scotland, I believe it is essential that any decision is indeed decisive. An indecisive result, indeed any unnecessary delay, will have a negative impact on investment into and within Scotland.
While the Scottish Parliament could possibly legislate to have a poll of some kind on the general issue of independence and while the UK Government technically has the legal responsibility for all matters Constitutional and therefore the current responsibility to legislate for a full independence referendum, compromise is in the national interest and would be welcomed by the Scottish public.
Compromise would also be helpful because it would ensure a clear outcome after a proposition whose significance was understood by those taking part.
So I believe that a Section 30 order should be used to delegate authority for this referendum to be binding, with legislation for a referendum then passed by the Scottish Parliament. But I believe that in securing agreement to have such powers delegated, the Scottish Government should give assurances to all involved that they will use those powers fairly and adopt a consensual and non-partisan approach to the establishment of the rules, the timing, and the question.
There is clearly a disagreement over the timing of the actual referendum vote. For my part, I think that timing should be set in the national interests and not to suit one side of the argument or the other. It should also be designed to maximize turn-out.
Those who believe the referendum should be held immediately this year should be willing to compromise, as should the Scottish Government, and the referendum should take place within the next 18 months at a date to be agreed by both Governments.
There should be no move from Thursday voting unless it is clear that any move will certainly result in higher participation. This is not a moment to experiment.
RULES FOR THE REFERENDUM AND VOTING
It seems clear to me that for the outcome to be accepted by everyone on this highly contentious issue and for any decision to be accepted as final, allowing Scotland to move on from this debate, the rules for the campaign and for voting should be set out by the Electoral Commission following full consultation with the political parties and others who have an interest.
The Electoral Commission should not merely administer the process but they should advise both the UK Government and the Scottish Government, the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, on the question, the financial limits, and the voting age. While I personally have always sympathised with the case for voting at 16, again it would be wrong to experiment with a different franchise for this most important of votes.
For the public to accept that the campaign will be fair and for everyone on both sides to accept the outcome, Leaders in both Parliaments should commit in advance to accepting the advice of the Electoral Commission and legislating as required to implement that advice.
On the specific issue of the question, I believe there is a strong compromise position between the stated preferences of the pro-independence and pro-UK parties. And I believe that compromise would be welcomed by the people of Scotland.
On the issue of an additional question about the extent of devolution I can understand that some who favour Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom, and some who favour independence, feel that an additional question might suit their objectives. But I cannot see any way in which an additional question helps Scots to make a clear decision on Scotland’s future inside or outside the UK. So I believe the options on the paper need to be crystal clear.
In my view the question should ask voters to choose between two statements:
1. I agree that Scotland should become an independent country.
2. I agree that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
This format would actually be consistent with the approach taken in 1997.
With Scotland’s unemployment rate increasing to 8.6% in the last quarter of 2011, and our Annual GDP growth rate now behind the rest of the UK, I believe that these are very difficult times for our country. All who have positions in Government at any level must take these economic conditions seriously and strive to make decisions on our future that give us the best possible opportunity to increase growth and create more jobs.
That, and my belief that the time is now right for a clear and final decision between the Constitutional options of an independent Scotland or a devolved Scotland within the UK lead me to believe that both the UK Government and the Scottish Government must compromise and deliver the referendum that ordinary Scots deserve.
Jack McConnell is the former First Minister of Scotland.