Wednesday, 22 August 2012

"Independent" panel publishes "referendum question"

So states the Scottish Lib Dems' website in a rather disingenuous headline, announcing that an "independent" panel of experts has presented its findings in respect to its views on the form the question in the forthcoming independence referendum should take.

It's disingenuous of course because no question has been published, merely advice as to how that question should be asked and what form the question should take.  I'm not going to question the expertise of the panel, which includes Prof Stewart Sutherland, Dr Matt Qvortrup and Ron Gould.  I'm even in agreement with some of the sentiments reportedly expressed by the panel, including that "every people has a right to self-determination but that right can only be exercised if they are asked a clear and unequivocal question".  

Whether a panel whose remit came directly from the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties can be truly called "independent" is, however, questionable.  I am not suggesting that the academics themselves are politically biased, but they will surely have been aware that their work and findings will be used for political purposes and to justify a particular approach on behalf of the parties that commissioned them.  Already the three leaders are seeking to make capital from this, suggesting in the process that the First Minister would prefer confusion over clarity.

This is, of course, just one political battle in a wider war, with Salmond keen to remind Labour and the Lib Dems of the opportunities a second question may have afforded them and the unionist parties keen to play up the need for "clarity" (unhelpful talk of court decisions, etc.), attempting to take some high ground from drafting a question ahead of the SNP and then claiming credit when the SNP eventually get round to putting forward a question that is either similar or identical.  None of this political one-upmanship is attractive to Scottish voters.

While I respect the expertise on the panel, I'd be interested to know why it was seen as so necessary - and how it was funded.  Presumably expertise doesn't come cheap and if the panel was jointly commissioned by the three parties I'd take a stab at the cost being shared equally.  Quite how a party that couldn't stretch to an election leaflet for me in the Holyrood elections last year can be throwing cash at academics simply to make some political capital from the SNP's current alleged lack of progress on drafting a question I don't know.  As a party member I'd ask if it was money well spent.

In fairness, the findings of the panel were hardly unexpected.  Anyone with even a passing interest in constitutional matters will argue that referenda need to have clear questions and clear outcomes.  I could have given the same answer for nothing if I'd been asked.  In fact, no-one is disputing this.  There was little particularly complex about the matter brought before the panel - this really is all much ado about nothing.

More interestingly, I had a conversation with chief whip Alistair Carmichael on facebook recently (I am so glad we have a chief whip who talks to members on facebook) about this very issue and he stated that "the number of questions on the ballot form will never define or limit the terms of the debate but will most probably be the start of it."  Wise words indeed.  He also went on to state that we need a single question referendum for practical and "political" reasons (i.e. antipathy towards the SNP) and insisted that such a referendum was needed "sooner rather than later".  

It's a bit of a shame Mr Carmichael and other Lib Dems weren't saying the same kind of things before the SNP won its majority in Holyrood.  We may have then been able to not only influence the wording of the question but help frame the terms and direction of the debate.  As it stands, whether we like it or not, Alex Salmond has won a mandate to ask the question and therefore to decide what that question is.  Ultimately the Electoral Commission will determine whether that question is suitable and fair, not the unionist parties of Scotland or a panel appointed by those parties, however "independent" and "expert" they may be.

Besides, Alex Salmond and his party have already intimated that their preferred question is "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"  I fail to see what is so confusing about that, why it lacks clarity or why it is at odds with the recommendations of the experts.

I don't doubt that when the SNP actually confirms its final question it will be clear and direct.  Until that time I don't see how much can be gained from speculating the precise wording or by asserting a right to determine the question on the part of political parties who long ago surrendered any moral right to do so.  Perhaps, instead of insisting that the SNP sign up to the recommendations of the "independent" panel, the other parties should be happy to accept the SNP's stated preferred question as a starting point?

In any case a single-question referendum cannot be too complicated.  Voters already know what they're voting for - we even have "Yes" and "No" camps before the question has even been properly conceived!  Perhaps, if our leaders are serious about "moving on to a real debate about our country's future", isn't it time for our political parties to concentrate on the answers rather than the question? 

There are far more pertinent issues for our political leaders to get their collective teeth into without them adding to the apparent confusion by confusing people with talk of confusion.  


Tom Duffin said...

I applaud your integrity Andrew, at a time when others in your party have abandoned theirs. It gives me hope that we can have a grown up debate about the future of Scotland. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps, if our leaders are serious about "moving on to a real debate about our country's future", isn't it time for our political parties to concentrate on the answers rather than the question? "

I think you've hit the nail on the head there. Less of the childish yaa boo posturing,smears and lies. Let's have a proper debate instead. But I'm not holding my breath I'm still waiting on a positive case for the union that doesn't involve sentiment, scaremongering and half truths. Good on you for questioning your party.

James Sneddon

Ken said...

Hi Andrew,

Fantastic post- a breath of fresh air. I'm so glad that you decided to continue your blog- and I hope that you might even be persuaded in future to stand again. Scotland needs people like yourself who are not afraid to speak up, even if what they say goes against the party line.

From a Lib Dem perspective, I find it amazing that the party which has championed Home Rule for so long (and who still have it prominently displayed in the wordcloud at the top of the website) can paint itself into the corner of the 'No' camp so firmly. Surely a massive opportunity to position itself as advocates of FFA which would chime with the Scottish electorate?

Andrew said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks for your comment.

I took a couple of months off from the blogging, then came back to it although I'm not able to write as frequently s I'd like. As for standing again...well, i'd like to but whether the Lib Dems want me to represent them is another thing!

I understand and in fact share your concerns in regards my party. For a party that claims to be federalist there is virtually no practical evidence to confirm such credentials. I can understand why the party would not openly support independence, but have never understood why we have obstructed a referendum for so long or why we have been so quick to ally ourselves to the coalition of negativity that is Better Together. We could have remained on the sidelines, advocating the FFA that Willie Rennie believes in, without committing ourselves to any camp - asking questions of both and having the opportunity to put forward our own distinctive message more in line with the wishes of the electorate than either Yes Scotland or Better Together. That chance to be seen as the positive, non-tribal voice of reason has now gone.