The government’s Scottish referendum plans are indefensible

Alan Renwick


The UK government has launched a consultation on the framework for a referendum on Scottish independence.  Unfortunately, this is a consultation where the government apparently thinks it already knows most of the answers.  Worse still, the answers it has reached are the wrong ones.  They would deny the people of Scotland the chance to make an informed and considered decision.

The consultation document says that a referendum should be “legal, fair, and decisive”.  It repeats this formulation on pages 5, 7, 9, 10, and 18.
Repetition does not, however, constitute a good argument, and in fact the government says almost nothing to justify this selection of criteria.

The goal of fairness, it is true, is unimpeachable.  The government is right to say that this referendum should be held within the established legislative framework, that it should be supervised by the Electoral Commission, and that there should be no ad hoc fiddling with the franchise.  Legality is required in order to furnish this framework.

But why is decisiveness the sole remaining criterion?  Certainly, any referendum should yield a clear result.  But the government means more by decisiveness than this: it means also that the decision should be quick and final.  By way of justification, it says it “believes that the continuing uncertainty about Scotland’s future is damaging to Scotland”.  But that is really no justification at all: no evidence is offered in support of this belief.  And what of other possible criteria?  Is it not at least as important that the proposal people vote on should be clear and that there should be scope for sustained, reasoned debate on it before the vote takes place?

The unjustified decisiveness criterion leads directly to three core elements of the government’s proposals: the referendum should be held quickly; it should deliver a final answer to the question of Scotland’s future in the UK; and it should offer only one reform option – that of full independence.

Speed might not be too problematic in itself.  But it is dangerous when combined with the desire for an immediate final answer.  The Constitution Unit has long argued persuasively that any move to Scottish independence should take place only after a two-stage referendum process.  The first referendum would authorize the Scottish government to open negotiations on the terms of independence.  The second would allow a final decision to be made on the basis of the terms agreed.  By contrast, the UK government wants Scots to make their minds up before the terms of the divorce are known.  Fundamental questions – such as how assets will be divided and whether Scotland’s membership of the EU will need to be renegotiated – will not have been answered.  Requiring Scots to make their decision in the dark like this is wholly undemocratic.

If there is to be one, final referendum, then the UK government’s objections to a referendum with two reform options are well grounded: voters might well choose the middle way of “devo max” without understanding clearly what that option entails.  In a two-stage referendum, however, this problem would disappear.  The first referendum would ask two questions: whether voters want the Scottish government to open negotiations on a new constitutional settlement; and whether that settlement should be independence or further devolution.  The second referendum would give a decisive vote on the single negotiated deal.

The fact that the government fails to justify its approach in the consultation document points to the fact that its approach is unjustifiable.  It ignores the excellent advice offered by the Constitution Unit.  It requires Scottish voters to make a decision without knowing what they are voting on.  It prevents the development of a reasoned debate.

Of course, there is no doubt why the government is taking this course.  It knows that the polls currently oppose independence.  It knows that voters are less likely to support change in a referendum the less clear they are as to what that change entails.  Conservatives discovered last May just how useful a referendum No vote can be for closing down a debate.  Most Westminster politicians would be delighted to burst the Salmond bubble.

As a Scot living in England, I am no fan of breaking the union.  But Scottish voters must be allowed to decide this issue without a gun next to their heads.  The UK government’s proposals are democratically indefensible.  What’s more, they might well backfire: the result will not be decisive if Scots feel they have been bounced.  This issue is far too important to be manipulated for such transparently self-serving ends.  The government really needs to rethink its approach.

Alan Renwick’s current research into political reform debates in the UK is generously supported by the Nuffield Foundation, to whom he is grateful.  Any views expressed herein and all errors are, of course, his own.

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