The need for a fair referendum is more important than the question of who holds it, TOM HARRIS told the House of Commons last night


Mr Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to lead this important debate about the future of my nation. It will not have escaped your notice that the results of last May’s Scottish Parliament elections were less than satisfactory as far as my own party is concerned. We now have a majority SNP Government at Holyrood, a government committed to ripping Scotland out of the United Kingdom, the most successful political and democratic union the world has ever seen.

But while I disagree fundamentally with the nationalists and with the very notion of the politics of identity – after all, my own party has always believed that people are rather more important than borders – I nevertheless concede and recognise that the SNP now have a mandate to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should be a nation separate from the rest of Britain and, consequently, Europe.

But I want to take the opportunity of this debate to remind the nationalists that the electorate have given them a mandate, not a blank cheque. And if the SNP prove that they are incapable of holding a free and fair referendum, then I want to know from the minister whether he thinks the UK government has any role in ensuring that the Scottish people are properly consulted about the future of our nation.

Let me quote from the SNP manifesto from earlier this year:

  • Independence will only happen when people in Scotland vote for it. That is why independence is your choice. We think the people of Scotland should decide our nation’s future in a democratic referendum and opinion polls suggest that most Scots agree. We will, therefore, bring forward our Referendum Bill in this next Parliament. A yes vote will mean Scotland becomes an independent nation.

Unfortunately, since unexpectedly achieving an overall majority at Holyrood, the First Minister seem to have decided, rather counter-intuitively, that the manifesto on which he was elected actually matters less than would have been the case had he been forced to govern, once more, as a minority.

Even now, there are many SNP members who claim their party’s mandate is to hold the referendum towards the end of this parliament. The manifesto says no such thing. The First Minister is certainly entitled to hold a referendum at a time of his choosing, and it could be next year if he chose or in 2015 if that is his preference. But he obviously knows when it’s going to be. It beggars belief that he and his cohorts haven’t at least narrowed it down to two or three possible dates.

So why won’t they share this information with Scotland? Are only high-ranking members of the party entitled to this information? Whatever one’s view of independence, I’m sure we can all agree that this debate will, inevitably, create a degree of uncertainty.

Even if Alex Salmond today condescended to share the date of the referendum with us mere mortals, a degree of uncertainty and financial instability would ensue. The SNP could minimize this if they chose, but they choose not to. And more important than the effects on future investment decisions is the simple democratic right of ordinary Scots to know precisely what plans the SNP have for our nation.

Neither does the SNP manifesto feature a commitment to lowering the voting age for the referendum, yet that seems to be exactly what the SNP are planning, since they clearly believe that the chances of the people endorsing their plans for separation would be less if the existing franchise were used.

The SNP would, no doubt, point to their long-standing commitment to joining Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador in the group of nations where 16-year-olds vote. Polling suggests that younger people are more likely to support independence, so who can doubt that a one-off reduction in the voting age for one specific referendum can be anything other than the most cynical move to get the “right” result? And if the SNP really cared about enfranchising younger people, why haven’t they made any progress towards lowering the voting age for local authority elections, over which they have legislative control?

Thirdly, the SNP seem to have a problem with the idea of the Electoral Commission having oversight of the referendum. I suspect I know why. When the Deputy Prime Minister announced his preferred question to put before the people in the AV referendum, it was the Electoral Commission which said no, which insisted on a more objective, more easily understandable question (I believe his preferred wording was something like: “AV’s great, isn’t it?”).

To be forced to ask the Scottish people a straightforward, understandable question is something the SNP clearly cannot tolerate.

And then there’s the biggie: so-called Full Fiscal Autonomy. However long it will be before the referendum, it is unlikely that this option, or “Devo Max” or “Independent Lite” or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Independence” will be any better defined than it is today; it will still mean whatever you want it to mean, which undoubtedly explains its consistent popularity in opinion polls.

Not only is it ill defined, it is not deliverable, since it would affect fundamentally the way the whole of the UK – not just Scotland – would be governed. And Scotland imposing a form of government on the rest of the UK would be no more acceptable than the other way round.

Moreover, once again, there is nothing in the SNP manifesto – noR in anyone’s manifesto – to justify the addition of a third option on the ballot paper.

Even in his typically humble and understated conference speech in Inverness on Saturday, the First Minister gave an opaque hint that Separation Lite might yet be included on the ballot paper. But he fell short of clarifying the issue – even though his spin doctors had told the press in advance that that was exactly what he intended to do.

Let’s be clear: the refusal to name a date, the lowering of the voting age, the exclusion of the Electoral Commission and the inclusion of a third, vague option – these were not in the SNP manifesto, and for a very good reason: fair minded Scots would have concluded that someone, somewhere, was attempting a constitutional sleight of hand. And they would have been right.

Whether or not the Scottish people wish to remain part of the UK, it is of the utmost importance that the result of any referendum cannot be second guessed, misinterpreted, reinterpreted or undermined. It must not be ambiguous.

In 1995 the people of Quebec were asked to take part in their second referendum on the question of independence. One might be forgiven for assuming that the question on the ballot paper was: “Do you wish Quebec to become an independent country?”

But that would have been far too honest and straightforward a question – after all, the actual question was framed by nationalists. And this is the actual question put to Quebec voters:

  • Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

Given the high esteem in which Scottish nationalists hold the separatists of Quebec, I expect they looked upon this wording – and the very narrow margin of defeat it suffered – with some envy and admiration.

It would be a great shame if the nationalists’ posturing, prevarication and cowardice on the referendum were to result in the same kind of solution to which the Canadian parliament was forced to resort: a Clarity Act, to make sure that certain basic principles of transparency and honesty were adhered to in any referendum.

That is not a road I would wish to go down, but it is something we may have to consider. After all, the sovereignty of the Scottish people and our right to have a fair and honest say in the future of our nation trumps the pomposity and pride of Scottish Government ministers, of whatever rank.

But perhaps this “jiggery pokery” is understandable from a nationalist perspective. After all, politics is about priorities and the SNP priority is independence, nothing else. Jobs, the economy, the health service, schools, the fight against poverty – none of these issues matters as much to them as the prospect of having the word “Scotland” instead of “United Kingdom” on their passports. So perhaps in their minds the end justifies the means.

In my mind, and in the minds of the great majority of Scots, it certainly does not.

Mr Speaker, it’s not too late. The Scottish Government could, even now, rescue their reputation and re-establish their commitment to Scottish democracy by making it clear that the question we were promised – Yes or No to independence – will be asked; no fudging, no cheating, no rigging, with complete transparency. The Scottish people deserve that at least.

But if the SNP Government cannot rise to the challenge of delivering their own manifesto commitment, then we may have to accept that the UK government has a role to play.

Alex Salmond is highly thought of in Scotland. He is a substantial politician who, I have no doubt, loves Scotland dearly. If he is guilty of putting his party’s ambitions above those of the Scottish people, it is only because he too often conflates the two.

So what would it say about Alex Salmond if the Rt. Hon. Member for Witney, the Prime Minister, turned out to be more capable than he of delivering the SNP’s key manifesto commitment?

Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. He Tweets as @Tom4Scotland.