Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The conversaton, the commission and the problem with a referendum

Wendy Alexander's U-turn over the weekend on the question of a referendum on Scottish independence has come as a surprise to many people.

As Alex Wilcock rightly points out, Wendy's move was a panic reaction to the Labour slaughter in the local government elections in England and Wales. But there is also an element of political calculation in it, as it's highly unlikely that a referendum would result in a majority for independence at this stage. Wendy doubtless fears that the SNP would be able to build momentum towards a referendum the longer it is delayed. In itself, this is a sign of Wendy's lack of confidence, as it doesn't seem she's got the belief she could make the case against separation if a referendum was held as late as 2010 or 2011.

Wendy's call also pre-empts the work of the Calman Commission, set up to examine options for the future of Scottish devolution. I have to say I don't see the point of agreeing to the Lib Dem idea of a constitutional commission one week, and then undermining it the next by supporting a referendum on independence. Also, if as expected the Calman Commission does propose significant new powers for the Scottish Parliament, particularly with regard to finance, is it Wendy's position that we should have one referendum now in independence and then another in a couple of years time on the Calman proposals? That is a nonsense.

The work of the Calman Commission will continue, despite Wendy's sabotaging of it. I hope that the commission will make a real effort to involve ordinary Scots in the process, so that there is widespread understanding of the issues facing Scotland's future. And it will be interesting to see what recommendations it eventually comes up with, as those are by no means pre-determined.

That is in contrast to the other so-called debate on Scotland's future, the SNP's National Conversation. Is there any doubt that this will result in anything other than Alex Salmond saying that he thinks independence is a jolly good thing? Surely not.

What it won't do is come up with a workable proposal for independence, one which gives the people of Scotland a clear idea of what the costs and benefits of separation would be. That would be in stark contrast to the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the run-up to the devolution referendum in 1997. That produced a workable plan for devolution and people were in no doubt what they were voting on when the vote was held.

And that highlights the problem with an independence referendum at this stage. Wendy's U-turn has prompted some in my own party, such as Stephen Glenn and Iain Dale (the Lib Dem one) to renew their calls for the Scottish Lib Dems to do likewise. I think they are wrong. An independence referendum should only be held when there is a fully-worked out proposal on the table. That is not the case at the moment, so people would have no idea what they'd be voting on. There are plenty of people who would say "yes, but not at any price" or "no, but if the terms of separation are good enough..." At the moment, we'd be buying a pig in a poke.

But I also have to disagree with the offical Scottish Lib Dem position. Nicol Stephen was quoted on Reporting Scotland this evening as saying that an independence referendum would harm investment in Scotland, which seems absurdly over the top to me.

There is a case for a referendum, but only when there are clearly worked out proposals, for both independence and an enhanced devolution settlement, as provided by the Calman Commission. And any referendum must be a multi-option one, not the "yes/no" suggested by Wendy. That means a referendum at this stage would be premature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the Nicol point, look at Quebec. Just by holding their two referendums, the economy was hit - not just in Quebec but Canada wide - stock market, interest rates, business investment.

So simply calling a referendum creates business uncertainty and that hits the economy.

(But the rest of your stuff is pretty sound)

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