Everything you need to know: The third option for Scottish independence
As of the Edinburgh Agreement signed last October, Scotland is holding a vote on independence in 2014. Regardless of the result, the polarized referendum campaigns (split between pro-union and nationalist camps) are leaving a gaping middle ground untouched—increased autonomy—which a majority of Scots believe is the next logical step for Scotland’s evolving union with Westminster.
The current debate stymies a more important and relevant conversation about what powers Scotland needs, how those can be accommodated under the current constitutional arrangement, and what is already achieved by the Scotland Act 2012.
On St Andrews Day 2009, the Scottish Government published a white paper, Your Scotland, Your Voice, stating: “Devolution was never intended as a fixed arrangement…Nor does devolution need to be Scotland’s final constitutional destination.”
The paper was based on The National Conversation, a survey launched by the Scottish Government in August 2007. It included the findings of the Calman Commission, an independent body supported by Holyrood and Westminster, charged with assessing “how Scotland’s constitutional arrangement within the UK” could be bettered.
Announcing the white paper in 2009, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) hoped to hold an independence referendum on St Andrew’s Day the following year; Labour, Tories, and Liberal Democrats all stood against the SNP’s then minority position.
As a concession, Salmond said he was “totally flexible” on the referendum’s wording—so long as the SNP got its independence question. The opposition, particularly Labour who oversaw the Scotland Act 1998, granting Scotland devolution and a separate parliament in its current form, were quick to denounce Salmond and the SNP. Labour MSP Iain Gray, quoted in The Scotsman, criticized Salmond, saying: “The SNP cannot even come up with a straight question for their bogus referendum,” which Scots didn’t want anyway.
Though Salmond abandoned his ambition for a referendum in 2010, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore took the opportunity on St Andrews Day that year to introduce a new Scotland Bill, intended to revise the Scotland Act 1998. After a year of debate, the bill received Royal Assent as the Scotland Act 2012. It comes into force in 2016, implementing “the proposals of the Calman Commission”—a series of measures for increased cooperation between the Scottish and English governments and devolving more legislative power and legal authority to Scotland.
Independence was beyond the Commission’s remit and as such, the Scottish Government was a reluctant supporter, concluding the proposed measures “fall far short of the fiscal realities which the Scottish Parliament requires.” Consequently, the campaign for an independence referendum continued. Public opinion polls however consistently show support for increased powers short of independence.
In 2009 Salmond suggested that on a referendum “the opposition parties could propose a question endorsing the Calman Commission,” The Financial Times reported, offering a third option between the status quo and independence.
The opportunity was dismissed, David Maddox wrote in The Scotsman, due “to the hostility of the opposition at Holyrood”. But the Scottish Parliament put forward the Commission’s recommendations in a question as part of a draft referendum bill on independence in 2010. Warning “the other parities that they would have to answer at the next Holyrood elections in 2011 if they refused to let the people speak,” Mr. Salmond got a referendum after the SNP swept an unprecedented majority of the Scottish Parliament’s seats in those elections.
Although Scots want increased devolution, and the Scottish Government was “willing to include a question about further devolution,” the referendum—finalized by the Edinburgh Agreement last October—will include only one question. Many believe independence and devolution should be handled separately. Your Scotland, Your Referendum, a survey which ran from 25 January until 11 May 2012, found only 32 per cent of respondents approved of a second question for devolution on the referendum.
The UK government’s consultation, Scotland’s Constitutional Future, which ran from 10 January to 9 March 2012, similarly found only 12 per cent approved of a second question. The vast majority, 75 per cent of those surveyed in Scotland’s Constitutional Future and 62 per cent in Your Scotland, Your Referendum, favor “a single, clear question on independence.”
Choosing multiple questions is more complicated than choosing one. When it came time to negotiate the terms of referendum, Westminster would not accept a second question—possibly an effort to get the SNP’s campaign dealt with and out of the way (though the SNP announced recently it will try again if the 2014 referendum does not succeed), or to avoid a slim victory for independence from a split vote.
Independence also is a constitutional matter: Westminster granted Holyrood legal authority to challenge the constitution (officially this month with a Section 30 order), but a vote on devolution effects the whole UK without every part getting an equal say. Furthermore, Scotland can ask for devolution in certain areas under the current arrangement without needing a constitutional referendum to do so.
The final wording and hashing out of the referendum’s contentious issues took place primarily behind closed doors in a series of meetings between Alex Salmond’s Deputy First Minister, Nicola Surgeon, and Westminster’s Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore. When the resulting Edinburgh Agreement was signed by First Minister Salmond and Prime Minister Cameron, there was officially only one question.
The House of Lords amongst others protested about the lack of transparency. The main opposition parties submitted a referendum question for review, and it was agreed the Electoral Commission would oversee the process, but there is now only one question (“Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?”) and the debate is whether the wording is biased, not whether it is the right question or if there should be another.
Independence is likely to fail. Popular opinion suggests and pundits agree that the current devolution arrangement is inadequate. Along with the Yes for independence and Better Together campaigns, there are burgeoning ideas for how devolution might improve Scotland’s position after the vote. At the very least, The Scotland Act 2012 guarantees limited tax powers will be devolved in 2016.
DevoPlus, a cross-party group including Lib Dems, Tories, and Labour suggests devolving more tax powers beyond the Scotland Act 2012, as well as “permanently vesting the power to legislate for non reserved matters in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament.” The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently published an option termed “Devo More,” another variation of devolving tax and revenue responsibilities, which Labour may eventually push for. The SNP— before the referendum was narrowed on one question—was amenable to a version called “Devo Max,” or “Independence Light,” giving Scotland full fiscal independence or something near that.
This Friday, MSP Ruth Davidson said it was time Conservatives assess how devolution might benefit Scotland, noting her Tory peers are losing relevance in Scotland backing the Pro-Union campaign. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron agreed, according to The Telegraph, welcoming a “constitutional convention” on the matter after the referendum. Everyone wants a sustainable, positive answer that can resolve the uncertainty the referendum brings on both sides. It is widely held that proponents of the various forms of devolution need to clarify what they offer. The SNP is unequivocal: “independence is what is on offer, it’s the only way.”
Ultimately, The Economist predicted in 1999, it is the SNP’s destiny to hold a referendum—an independence party calls for independence when in power. And now, with plans to keep the Queen as head of state and remain on the Stirling currency, it might seem Salmond’s version of independence is closer to “Devo Max” than real independence.
Thankfully, the Scotland Act 2012 should deliver some power most think the Scottish Government needs. Unfortunately, far from being a pillar of democratic right, as Nationalists have defined it, the referendum may show the dangers of a headstrong government doing as it feels, what it thinks is best, ignoring its people. It is not necessarily a waste of time: the drastic necessity which predicates the vote, though forced, may serve to better inform Scotland of what it really needs from devolution.Tagged in: Alex Salmond, david cameron, independence, referendum, Scotland
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