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Friday, 9 March 2012

Electoral Reform Society support second referendum question

Following on from yesterday's blog post, in which I revealed that constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor supports an option for further devolution finding its way onto the independence ballot form, I have today discovered that the Electoral Reform Society backs a second question in the independence referendum.

Scottish TV reported on its website that the ERS actually backs a question on "Devo Max" but this is not precisely true. The ERS have refused to back "a particular choice" - simply the principle of a second question. A spokesperson for the society argued that "avoiding a 'second question' represents a false choice. It risks not giving the Scottish people the choice of a future which polling shows many of them can unite around."

I don't disagree and it's encouraging to see that my own views might be out of sync with many in my party but are in keeping with those of leading constitutional experts and the foremost campaigning organisation for democratic reform in the UK. I don't make that statement to express an arrogance or to suggest that my views are somehow superior to those who take another. I am merely pointing out that, with the Lib Dems having ruled out supporting such an option, there is not a single political party willing to side with the reason of Prof Bogdanor and his fellow academics. Neither are any, other than the SNP, happy to embrace the recommendations of the ERS whose membership include a sizeable proportion of Liberal Democrats.

I wonder if at any point the party consulted the ERS or the constitutional experts prior to embarking on a course of action that I personally feel will prove destructive to our future electoral prospects? I have no idea, but I imagine not - in which case it is a great pity because this debate should be wider than what the interests of political parties dictate. Putting it bluntly, what is the point of a "consultation" when every party opposed to the SNP has indicated its unwillingness to countenance the prospect of a second question? The possibility is dead in the water even before the consultation has closed - and rendered such by what amounts to the determination by Scottish political tribes to kill off independence. The matter has been decided by the political parties before the public's views have even been considered. Is that democracy in action?

What seems to matter most is not the will of Scottish people but the defeat of the SNP's independence agenda. Alan Reid cynically suggested last week that "it's not who votes that count, but who counts the vote." I would paraphrase that slightly to give it a more accurate ring: "it's not who votes that count, but who has the voice". Clearly the voice that matters belongs to those who would oppose what the SNP government would pursue, irrespective of what its consultation would suggest is the will of the Scottish people.

Looking at the wider situation - with the aforementioned contributions from high profile groups and individuals as well as the fact that the Scottish Government's consultation doesn't close until today - the party may have been better advised to have waited until later in the year to debate this issue and to seek expert guidance to shape our direction rather than reacting to political pressures and the typical games that characterise Scottish party politics. In that sense people like myself and Denis Mollison grossly miscalculated in wanting to put the issue on the conference agenda at the earliest possibility; what this actually achieved was to make it easier for the party hierarchy to sell its current position to the membership and enshrine it into party policy very early in the day.

Och well, we live and learn I suppose. But supposing the ERS has spoken up sooner - could it have more effectively informed the discussion and shaped attitudes?

It is encouraging that the ERS has put forward a democratic case for the two-question referendum even if ultimately this voice of reason has little chance of achieving anything remotely significant. Perhaps if this option hadn't been categorically ruled out by ourselves there would have been more scope for bringing to life what promises to be a less than inspiring debate on the benefits and otherwise of independence with some interesting discussion about the detail of the option that could have been presented to Scottish voters at the same time. Far from "playing into Salmond's hands" as one notable person insisted, this would have shifted the focus considerably away from the usual narrow, constricted vitriol that passes for political debate here in Scotland and onto constructive dialogue in which the Liberal Democrats may have been able to exert some real influence.

That opportunity has now surely gone. There is little purpose now in labouring the point, and in the next few days I imagine my attentions and energies will be turned towards the NHS or other more pressing matters. (I sense a collective sigh of relief from some quarters). But I imagine that many supporters of further devolution short of independence will for some time continue to ask why a second question was denied, and I suspect this may create more than a few headaches for the Liberal Democrats.

At least the party's convinced of the rightness of its position - the challenge now is to convince Scots we've acted in their interests. I look forward to seeing how Willie Rennie and Michael Moore in particular plan to do this.

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