The Conservative Party has been getting very excited about an EU referendum, perhaps in the term of the current parliament, following Lord Lawson’s piece in the Times calling for UK withdrawal and reinforced today by news of a Commons vote next week. David Cameron, of course, has promised a ‘proper choice‘ at such a poll , but that would appear to be for the next Conservative manifesto. Such a vote would need more than Conservative support to get it through Westminster – another 19 votes, at least. The Lib Dems are unlikely to vote in favour, but there have been suggestions that Labour might support one after the next election – and it might enjoy putting the Conservatives in a difficult position for tactical reasons. So, while it’s unlikely, there is an outside chance of a UK-wide referendum on the EU, before that on Scottish independence.
I’ve addressed some of the implications of that, and the interaction between the two referendums, in a post for the Spectator‘s ‘Coffee House’ blog. That can be found HERE.
On Friday, IPPR published my paper Funding Devo More, the fruit of a long period of reflection about devolution finance and how the UK might do it differently and better (that’s available here). It also marks the start of my involvement in IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ project.
The aim of this project is to consider how devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might be enhanced; how to make a devolved UK work better. That means increasing the scope of devolved powers and responsibilities, but also looking at the Union as a whole and how to improve that. Effective devolution means more self-government, but it also means ‘more Union’; a more effective tier of government that delivers certain functions that devolved governments are unable to, in a way that makes it clear what the Union does for citizens as well as what devolved governments do. That is a far cry from the vestigial sort of entity it has often become in many of the Scottish debates. It’s also a step beyond the current thinking that suggests ‘more powers for Scotland (or Wales) means less for Westminster’; this need not be zero-sum game, if the thinking about what is involved is careful enough. If we are to continue to live in one decentralised country, we will all need to be clearer about which government does what and why.
I’ve explained separately some of the ideas underpinning my financing paper, which will be carried through into the project as a whole.
The ‘Devo More’ project will necessarily be a wide-ranging one, and our next big piece of work is to look at how devolution of aspects of welfare and social security might be accomplished, and what the implications of that will be. Another strand will be the sort of changes needed at the centre of government for is rather different sort of union to work. There is a good deal involved in the project, and those interested should keep an eye on the project’s webpage, which is here.
I’m very glad to be working with the Institute for Public Policy Research, and particularly Guy Lodge, on this project. IPPR have long taken a serious interest in debates about devolution and its implications, including the work they have done recently on developing public attitudes about national identity in England, their ‘Borderland’ project on the implications of change for Scotland for northern England, and how ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster might work. (The same can’t be said for most of the other London think-tanks.) For my part, working with IPPR isn’t a reflection of any political views; as well as formal committees, I’ve advised parties and politicians from across the political spectrum in the past (including Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru), and hope to continue to do so. It is simply a pragmatic judgment about who has the willingness and the resources to do serious, policy-oriented thinking about the future of the UK. In this respect, IPPR have stolen a march on their rivals.
We held the Funding Devo More launch event in Edinburgh on Friday morning, with Willie Rennie MSP responding on behalf of the Scottish Lib Dems and Sarah Boyack MSP (a late replacement for Margaret Curran MP) responding for Labour. Rachel Ormston of ScotCen also gave a presentation on the key parts of the results of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2012 that bear on the constitutional debate.
My presentation from the launch is now available HERE. Rachel Ormston’s slides – particularly interesting on what she calls the ‘maximalists’, those who want significantly enhanced devolution for Scotland but not independence – are here.
To highlight events and other activities relating to this project for those using Twitter, we shall be using the hashtag #devomore.
I’m also going to be on BBC Radio Wales’s ‘excellent Sunday Supplement’ programme this coming Sunday (27 January) to talk about the report and its implications for Wales. That should be at about 8.30 am.
I gave evidence last Thursday to the Scottish Parliament’s Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee, which is considering the section 30 order that forms part of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ between the UK and Scottish Governments as a preliminary to the Referendum Bill proper. (My earlier post on that is HERE.) I appeared with Professor Aileen McHarg from Strathclyde University; Michael Moore, the Secretary of State, followed us.
My appearance, and remarks about the role of the Electoral Commission, led to coverage in the Herald on Thursday here, and in the Scotsman, leading page 1 on Friday, here. The other slightly surprising issues to come up in questioning were the role of the Civil Service and the Read more…
I’ve a piece in today’s Guardian Comment is Free following the close vote at the SNP’s conference in Perth in favour of an independent Scotland joining NATO. The text of the resolution proposed by Angus Robertson MP and Angus MacNeil MP is here (but not, it seems, on the SNP’s own website). The vote has been accompanied by declarations – by Alex Salmond on the Andrew Marr Show, and by a vote due at the party’s next National Council meeting – that not only would an independent Scotland be non-nuclear, it would positively outlaw nuclear weapons. This is a problematic policy for the SNP, as NATO is innately a nuclear alliance. Its ‘strategic concept’ emphasises that, ‘as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.’ Membership of NATO would necessarily mean sheltering under the Alliance’s nuclear umbrella, through its mutual defence guarantees, and that would mean those weapons would be on NATO vessels that might sail in Scottish waters (or perhaps fly in Scottish airspace) even if they were never based in Scotland. Then, of course, there are the issues relating to the UK’s nuclear bases on the Clyde.
The Guardian piece – available here - discusses the vote at Perth and wider issues about nuclear weapons, both for an independent Scotland and in relation to referendum campaign strategies.
It’s also worth noting that the Royal United Services Institute published a paper A’the Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland by Stewart Crawford (a former British Army officer and SNP candidate) and Richard Marsh, an economist, last week. The paper considers the defence needs of an independent Scotland, and what its defence policy might look like. There’s a news release here, and the paper itself can be found here. It’s part of a wider programme of work by RUSI on Scotland and defence, which can be found here.
In his speech to the SNP conference in Perth (available here), Alex Salmond has suggested that there will be a ‘paving bill’ for the independence referendum. The principal reason for this is the need for a separate electoral registration process to enable 16 and 17 year olds to vote, as they are would not be included in the register produced by the usual electoral registration process. That bill, the First Minister says, will be introduced ‘in the next few weeks’. (I pointed out some of the practical problems with producing a register of under-18s so they could vote in the referendum HERE.)
The idea of a paving bill is a shift in the proposed timetable and programme for the referendum, which has only ever talked of a single referendum bill and not a preliminary paving measure. It’s a practical step, as otherwise work on this difficult area would have to be postponed until the main referendum bill is passed. As that is planned to be October 2014, only 12 months before the planned referendum date, that is about when the register would need to be compiled. Similarly, if those aged 16 and over are to be eligible to vote at the referendum, the register will need to include not only those aged 15 at the date it is compiled, but also some 14 year olds in order to catch those who qualify immediately before the day of the vote. All this is a task of some administrative complexity – and some cost.
There have been indications – leaks, rumours and even official statements – for some time now that agreement on the section 30 order to confer power on Holyrood to call a referendum on independence was near (see BBC News from the last few days here and here, or Severin Carrell in the Guardian in early September here and on Wednesday here). Indeed, I was on BBC Radio Wales’s phone-in yesterday to talk about the supposed agreement, to find that the latest news was that Alex Salmond was keen to emphasise that a deal had not yet been done, which led to the over-reaction that the deal was off. In any event, there is to be a meeting between Salmond and David Cameron on Monday, supposedly to sign off the section 30 order. (The SNP seem to have won a protocol struggle here, with Salmond succeeding in putting himself on the same footing as Cameron, while more junior ministers such as Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Moore do much of the sherpa-ing for the premiers’ summit.)
The order will, apparently, permit a single-question referendum, to be held not later than 2014, and regulated by the Electoral Commission. The single question and the regulation are points on which the UK Government (and Labour) have been determined since May 2011, and have been conceded by the Scottish Government; the date has been chosen by the SNP, but was initially resisted by the Unionist side. However, the question of who can vote in the poll has now become an area of controversy, because of the SNP’s desire to ensure that under-18s can vote. This was a focus of the debate around a private notice question in the Lords on Wednesday, asked by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (and available here), and again on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Thursday morning.
Autumn started with a bang in Scotland: a Programme for Government and plans for new legislation, including a referendum bill; a government reshuffle, and a host of policy initiatives.
First, Alex Salmond’s reshuffle of the Scottish ministerial team. The official press statement is here. Key moves are Nicola Sturgeon’s move to Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, along with a constitutional brief; Alex Neil’s swap with her, from Infrastructure to Health; the departure from government of Bruce Crawford and Brian Adam; and the appointment of Humza Yousaf as Minister for External Affairs and International Development. There has been something of a structural rejig. The Minister for Transport and Veterans (Keith Brown) and a new post of Minister for Housing and Welfare (Margaret Burgess) are to report to Sturgeon as Infrastructure Secretary. That may give Sturgeon more time for her constitutional brief. Yousaf reports to Fiona Hyslop as Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. The new Minister for Parliamentary Business is Joe Fitzpatrick, and is both whip and government business manager, but not a Cabinet Secretary. Burgess, Yousaf and Paul Wheelhouse (new Minister for Environment and Climate Change) all come from the 2011 intake of MSPs.
In contrast to the rather sprawling nature of the UK Coalition Cabinet (23 full members, its statutory limit, but 32 attendees – and there are also quite a few unpaid junior ministers to deal with the overall limit on the size of the government payroll), the Scottish Government are eager to point out that there are still only eight Cabinet members, and (by my reckoning) 10 non-Cabinet Ministers. Having a single-party government helps a lot, of course, and the Scottish Government’s responsibilities are much narrower, but even so the difference is telling.
Some time ago – before Easter, in fact – I had an article in the Scotsman about how enhanced devolution can be part of the Scottish independence referendum debate, despite the determination of the Unionist parties to have a single Yes/No question in that vote. In essence, that requires the ‘devolution plus’ option to be developed so that it is a clearly framed and worked-through scheme, with broad political support (from the Unionist parties, and more widely), before the referendum. Otherwise, a pro-Union vote will necessarily be a negative one, and that will make the pro-Union case a much harder one to make.
The text of the article as I filed it is below.
‘Devo more’: on the table, even if it’s not on the referendum ballot
The debate about Scotland’s constitutional future will soon come to another punctuation point. The UK Government’s consultation on an independence referendum will shortly result in the making of a section 30 order (something I outlined in this paper back in June 2011) , and the publication of the UK Government’s summary of responses to its consultation shows pretty clearly that London intends to limit the choice before voters to a single question, not two as sought by the Scottish Government. The referendum will be a straight choice between the Union and independence, with the possibility of further powers afterward.
This position suits the Unionist parties, if not the SNP. Quite a number on the Unionist side are opposed to any extension in the scope of devolved powers. Many others support more devolution, including the Liberal Democrats and many in Labour, but are not clear what that means. Politically, the Unionist side thinks it has a better chance of winning a Yes or No referendum than one offering several options – what one might call an ‘excluded middle’ strategy. This is essentially a negative approach, and contrasts with the positive one of the SNP.
I have now submitted a response to the dual consultations on a Scottish independence referendum – both the UK Government one, initiated by the white paper Scotland’s Constitutional Future Cm 8203, which closed on 9 March, and the Scottish Government’s one Your Scotland, Your Referendum which closes on 11 May.
In the submission I address three key issues: the timing of a referendum, the number of questions, and the regulation of the referendum, and relate my views to the key criteria for the referendum, set out by David Cameron but also agreed by the Scottish Government: that it must be ‘legal’, ‘clear’ and ‘decisive’. To these, ‘fairness’ has been added. There are particular problems with a decisive referendum, held before any independence negotiations have been held and when it is unclear what sort of a state an independent Scotland would be.
As regards timing, I argue that it would be appropriate to hold the referendum in the autumn of 2014, and that the key point in eliminating uncertainty is to establish the referendum date.
Regarding the number of questions, I note the divided nature of the constitutional debate since 2007, and the absence of any consensus on what ‘Devolution Plus’ or ‘Devolution Max’ would be, or any significant campaign for them. In the absence of such a clear position or campaign, I cannot see how a multi-choice referendum might be run – even if some form of enhanced devolution is what appears to have the support of a plurality if not majority of Scottish voters. (See my presentation from today’s Constitution Unit seminar, HERE, for more detail.)
When it comes to the regulation of the referendum, I argue that this role – including advice about the intelligibility of the question – needs to be undertaken by the Electoral Commission. This is necessary to ensure that the referendum is seen to be ‘fair’ more than anything.
I also raise the question of what, in the event of a Yes vote in a referendum, the position of the Scottish Government would be. Logically, the Scottish Government should be the party to negotiate terms of independence for Scotland after such a vote, and to make the necessary preparations for independence. However, it has no legal powers to do so under the Scotland Act 1998, nor does the Scottish Parliament have power to enable it to do so. Further powers would need to be conferred on the Scottish Government (and perhaps also the Parliament) to enable that to happen.
My submission can be found HERE.