The Commons Scottish Affairs Committee has launched two inquiries into aspects of Scottish referendum – one relating to issues relating to the holding and conduct of a referendum, and the other relating to substantive issues of separating Scotland from the UK. Details of the two inquiries are available from the Committee’s website here, and there are news reports from the Scotsman here and the Guardian here. Written submissions are due by 18 November on the referendum-related issues, and 11 November on the wider issues relating to Scottish independence.
There are good reasons to hold such far-reaching, substantial inquiries. These are major issues, on which the SNP has made the running since entering government in 2007. Now is a relatively late stage to have them, though – reflecting the lack of seriousness with which the Unionist parties have treated the issues up to now. But there have to be major questions about whether the Scottish Affairs Committee is the appropriate body to carry them out, at least in its present form. The Committee is, and is understandably seen as being, deeply partisan. This is an inquiry heavily weighted to one side of the debate, and it’s pretty easy even at this very early stage to predict its likely report. The sole SNP member of the Committee, Eilidh Whiteford, has already distanced herself from the inquiry. Non-partisan witnesses will want to think carefully about giving evidence and how to engage with it, especially given how it carried out its inquiry into the Scotland bill earlier in the year. Quite apart from my own treatment by the Committee (see HERE), it was evident during that inquiry that the witnesses, and the questions put to them, were largely chosen to reach a pre-determined conclusion.
That background means that no matter how well argued and evidenced a report the Committee produces, it will be easy for the Scottish Government to dismiss what it says because of where it comes from. The impact of the Committee’s work will therefore be limited.
Constitutional debates such as that about Scotland’s place in the Union are inevitably going to be tough, bitter affairs. The issues are important ones, and the stakes are high. Such aggressive tactics from the Unionist side do not just reflect those of the SNP, though but also the SNP’s success in the way it has argued its case. Polarising the debate in such a partisan way has already done serious disservices to Scottish voters, and this latest step is unlikely to help them understand what the options are, or to secure the sort of constitutional settlement that is what the Scottish public actually seems to want.