The Scottish Lib Dems yesterday issued a press release in which Willie Rennie argued that the SNP must "clear up the two question confusion".
Rennie suggests that "SNP plans for a multi-option referendum have been dominated by cluttered thinking and flawed logic. Their method for running a referendum with two questions has serious flaws." He goes on to make the case that a two-question referendum would result in an outcome other than the one the voters want: "if 70% of people support Devo-Max and 51% support Independence then Independence wins even though Devo-max is more popular. And now I can reveal that, if they follow the 1997 model, if Devo-Max got 49% and Independence 51% then the result would be the status quo."
Now, this is very strange logic and it appears to me that the only person who is either confused or attempting to create confusion is Willie Rennie. This press release is, to put it kindly, completely disingenuous. For a start, it simply isn't true that following the 1997 two-question model would result in the status quo or that if a higher proportion of the population support devo max in a second question than opt for independence in the first question that the outcome is somehow undemocratic. These Rennie-fabricated myths are effectively dispelled by Graeme Cowie.
A two question referendum does not run the risk of giving voters anything other than what they want. The first question would ask if Scots favour independence; the second whether "devo max" should be adopted if independence is not supported. So, as Graeme rightly points out and as everyone (other than a few Liberal Democrat politicians) seems to understand, the second question only becomes relevant if the first option is rejected. A converse of the 1997 situation if you like.
I'm not confused, Scottish voters wouldn't be confused and I can see no reason for Willie Rennie to be issuing this type of press release. As for the "cluttered thinking and flawed logic" Rennie speaks of - well, it's certainly in evidence but I wouldn't be levelling that accusation towards the SNP but instead towards the "unionist" parties determined to keep a two-question referendum off the agenda.
I can understand the logic of the Conservative and Labour parties in adopting this tactic. However, I can not comprehend what Willie Rennie could possibly hope to achieve with this. So much more would be gained by working with whoever possible (the SNP and, perhaps, Labour) to ensure that a solid proposal for "devo max" is on the table and is presented as a secondary option on the ballot paper. Rennie could be far more effective in making the case for a second question than in his misguided and rather pitiful attempts to destroy it.
There is one point on which I must admit to being confused. I'm really not sure what Willie Rennie stands for. On Sunday, the Sunday Herald featured an unusually positive piece which, while not revealing much new, at least hinted at the Lib Dem leader's commitment to facilitate a devo-max settlement. A day later, he is expressing opposition to the very principle of a two-question referendum that would have the potential to make this vision a reality.
Perhaps Willie Rennie should listen to his members. I already know a few who are independence-minded, largely because of frustration at the lack of moves towards further devolution. There are still more - and this represents a much larger section of the party - who, like Graeme, will be inclined to vote for independence if the only other option is the status quo. Most Liberal Democrats do not support the current arrangements, which Henry McLeish and Willie Rennie have already described as "unfit for purpose" and "dated" respectively. Banking on supporters of further devolution voting against independence is a very risky move on the part of the Lib Dem leadership, both at Holyrood and Westminster.
Tactics apart, here is an opportunity to work in collaboration with the SNP to ensure that the hope the Liberal Democrats have for Scotland's constitutional future is put to the Scottish people in the referendum. Refusing to even countenance the idea of asking two distinct questions amounts to the Scottish Lib Dems cutting their noses off to spite their faces. We will surrender any influence or voice we have, while aligning ourselves with the reactionary views of Ruth Davidson's Tories and Johann Lamont's Scottish Labour, neither of which have had much constructive or forward-thinking to say about devolution. It's vital we take this opportunity to press for "devo-max" and become identified once again as the radical party of devolution, rather than what Graeme describes as "the third wheel of a Unionist 'no' vote".
A senior Liberal Democrat who happens to be a close personal friend has suggested I should stop talking about the referendum. I know what he means; there are other things to get my teeth into. However, so long as our leadership continues to put forward rather bizarre and counter-productive press releases I will keep on talking.