Thursday, 8 March 2012

Constitutional expert wants Devo Max option on ballot form

Days after the Scottish Liberal Democrats' conference voted to support a single-question yes-no referendum on the basis that independence should be defeated before additional powers for Scotland are considered, a constitutional expert has announced he favours including an option for Devo Max on the ballot form.

Vernon Bogdanor, author of Devolution in the United Kingdom, also expressed criticism of the position, taken by the Liberal Democrats as well as Prime Minister David Cameron, of waiting until after the referendum to reveal the extent of any further powers. This he dismissed as "hardly satisfactory", claiming it was unfair to ask Scots to make their minds up in regards independence when they were unaware what the alternatives might be. He supported a single multi-option referendum question over the SNP's favoured two questions in order to minimise confusion and believes that the date of the referendum should be brought forward due to fears of a prolonged campaign creating economic damage.

As a respected academic, Professor Bogdanor is worth listening to. I am not convinced entirely by his argument that a two-question referendum would cause confusion, given the experience of a similar exercise in 1997 and the multi-ballot parliamentary elections that have been held for Holyrood since 1999. However, I entirely agree with his insistence that Devo Max or a similar, well-defined alternative option should be made available to the electorate for the reasons he gives and because this appears to be the option that the vast majority of people actually favour.

The political difficulty with Bogdanor's recommendation is that the SNP have the democratic mandate to ask the question they choose. Having been denied the opportunity in the past, I can not argue that the SNP should be made to do anything other than ask as their primary question whether Scots wish to become independent or remain part of the union. While from a constitutional point of view Bogdanor's multi-option question would be the simplest and most direct way forward, politically speaking the SNP have won the right to ask about independence. And that's what I defend their right to do.

However, it is also important that in making the choice Scots need to be made aware of what exactly it is they're voting for. This means that Mr Salmond and his party have to be more precise where possible about the nature of a post-independence Scotland. But the converse is that the exact extra powers that will be delivered if independence is rejected must also be made clear, as well as the framework through which they will be achieved. There also needs to be some clarity as to how binding loose commitments to change are in practice and whether the delivery of further powers can be legally guaranteed.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Professor Bogdanor is critical of existing plans to offer a "mystery prize which cannot be revealed until after independence is rejected", adding: “A suspicious Scottish voter might fear that, if (s)he were to reject independence, and if the SNP were then to be defeated in the Holyrood elections in [2016], Westminster might then forget about ‘devo max’ and the status quo would be preserved.” That is my fear exactly, and also a view shared by fellow Lib Dem blogger Nicola Prigg.

Bogdanor is entirely correct to assert that precise alternatives should be spelled out beforehand. Currently, if there is confusion over the issue it isn't about the uncertainties of a "yes, yes" outcome in a potential two-question referendum but on the precise meaning of such terms as "Devo Max", "Devo Plus", "Devo Minus" or "Devo Lite". What the Liberal Democrats could (and, I'd argue, should) have done is to use what influence and leverage they have to work with the SNP to ensure a comprehensive, radical and easily understood package of reform was included as a secondary option. What may well happen now is that, while the SNP campaign positively for what they want in the shape of independence, mixed noises will be expressed about the various options for further devolution and what may or may not be delivered. Confusion is likely to abound unless a blueprint for "further powers" and constitutional change can be articulated, agreed and guaranteed by the Lib Dem - Conservative coalition and assurances gained from Labour that the plans will not be reversed in the event of their winning the 2015 General Election.

Interestingly, while Bogdanor clearly prefers the single question arrangement, the Telegraph reported that the professor believes "public support for extra powers means there is a 'strong case' for the inclusion of a second question". Now that is very interesting. Willie Rennie has consistently made the claim that not a single academic supports a two-question referendum. It is certainly true that Bogdanor is not fully embracing it but he appears to favour it over the single option on independence currently in front of us and is evidently supportive of ensuring that an arrangement for the delivery of further powers makes it onto the ballot form. Given that this is no ordinary academic but probably the most respected constitutional expert in Britain - and a distinctly non-partisan one - I wonder what Rennie makes of his well researched and informed contribution? If he and the party are so keen to use academic recommendation (or lack of it) as a basis for the party's policy decisions, surely we have to at least take Bogdanor's criticisms and advice seriously and, ideally, act on it? Surely outright rejection would not only be foolish but hypocritical given the importance Rennie gave Dr Matt Qvortrup's expertise.

Speaking from a personal perspective, I find it unfortunate that this academic endorsement of a third referendum option was not made public prior to our conference last week. It would certainly have provided some useful ammunition to those in the party in favour of such an option. It perhaps might also have ensured that a greater emphasis was put on the question rather than on the SNP.

As for Bogdanor's argument that the referendum date should be brought nearer, I can only state that his basis for making the assertion that Scotland could suffer economically during a protracted campaign is based on the Quebec experience of 1995. What I might suggest is that the localised economic pressures of the time were caused by a combination of factors (not least that the status of the economic relationship between Quebec and Canada was explicitly being consulted on) and that it is therefore difficult to determine precisely the impact of the duration of the 1995 referendum campaign - or to necessarily assert that those factors would inevitably come to bear in relation to Scotland and the UK, although it does remain a possibility.

I think ultimately it is Alex Salmond's right to ask the question he wants at the timing of his choosing. I hope that a double question referendum can go ahead, however unlikely that may seem. Failing that, the parties opposed to independence must state specifically what their vision for Scotland's future is and how they plan to achieve it. Not only is it the only way that their vague promises and good intentions can gain the necessary credibility, it's also the only means by which these parties can be brought to account post-2014 and for change to be guaranteed.

I welcome this purposeful intervention from Bogdanor, which to some degree puts the ball back into the Liberal Democrats' court. How do we respond to it? How do we convince the public that not only do we want to deliver but that we can and will deliver? And how can we articulate a vision for our nation's future that is positive, resonates with the public and can actually be assured to become reality if an independence option is rejected? I suspect we've got a lot of work to do if we want the public to take us seriously as the "guarantors of change".

Professor Bogdanor was addressing the Scottish Affairs Committee yesterday in the House of Commons. His arguments and recommendations are also backed by other academics who addressed the committee including Professor John Curtice (profssor of politics at Strathclyde University), Professor Iain McLean (fellow in politics, Nuffield College, Oxford University) and Peter Kellner (President, You Gov). An impressive array of leading intellectuals, I'm sure you'll agree.


Nic said...

The Holyrood elections are in 2016 now, not 2015. The SNP minority administration pushed backed the Scottish elections a year in order to avoid any potential confusion of having the General & Scottish elections held on the same day.

Otherwise, very good post.

Andrew said...

I did know that. Why I was still thinking about 2015 I've no idea. Thanks for the correction!

Andrew said...

Actually Nic, having just re-read the piece I discovered that it wasn't my mistake, but that of a Telegraph journalist from whom I was quoting! Typical.