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AV referendum, devolution, electoral reform, proportional representation, Scottish parliament

Turn AV day into Constitution Day.

Calamity Clegg rides again.  The Liberal Democrats have been inviting ridicule by proposing a referendum they could easily lose on a voting system they don’t actually support.  The proposed AV referendum on May 5th, the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections,  will be held at the height of the cuts controversy, with unemployment rising amid a wave of public sector strikes, and may simply provide an opportunity for disgruntled voters to register their disenchantment with the ConDem coalition.  And it’s not even as if the Alternative Vote is proportional. 

  Then there is the Scottish question.  I can understand why Alex Salmond is livid about having the Holyrood elections upstaged by a Great Debate on electoral reform.   Just as in the May general election, the campaign will likely be dominated by televised debates generated by the London media and featuring prominent Westminster politicians like Nick Clegg, David Miliband, David Cameron.  This could drown out the Nationalists just as they are trying to get a fair hearing for their case for re-election in Holyrood on May 5th. 

   The failure to involve Holyrood in advance wasn’t so much disrespectful as  inept.  You can’t just go around gatecrashing peoples’ elections without having some kind of consultation.  Especially since the last Holyrood elections descended into chaos because people couldn’t handle the complexity of voting in two simultaneous elections with three ballot papers.  Thousands of votes were rendered invalid and following the Goold Report, the Scottish local elections have been de-coupled from the Holyrood ballot.  Now, say critics, Holyrood is to be recoupled with a referendum on an electoral system that few people understand. 

   However, I don’t think this technical case against holding a referendum on the same day as a general election is actually very strong.  The choices involved in a referendum are a lot simpler and don’t involve multiple parties and different levels of government.   It is common practice in other democracies, most notably the USA, to have plebiscites riding piggy back on elections.  There is a good argument that it saves money – for cash-strapped political parties as well as the taxpayer  –  and gets a lot of questions resolved with only one visit to the polling stations.  Voters already think there are too many elections.

  Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder, assuming this referendum on voting reform is to happen, if we couldn’t make a virtue of necessity and bolt on another referendum or two.  Would this not be an excellent moment to get all those unresolved Scottish constitutional issues out of the way?  Why not the Calman Commission proposals on tax powers for Holyrood due to be put before parliament in the autumn?  Why not an independence question as well?  We could turn May 5th 2011 into a Scottish “Constitutional Day” in which the country seeks to unbreak the political system and establish a refreshed and updated constitutional settlement.  We could lay the National Conversation to rest, provide fiscal responsibility to Holyrood and stop having to talk about independence for a generation.  I’m sure we’d all be the better for that.   

  After all, the Welsh are  having a referendum in the spring on extending he powers of the Welsh Assembly. Admittedly, they’re aiming to have it shortly before the May ballot on the grounds that the voters should be considering the constitutional options free from distraction by a parallel Assembly election.  But I think a case can be made in Scotland that addressing the whole constitutional package  on the same day would actually help rebalance the campaign, bring it home to Scotland and generate a real sense of constitutional engagement.  There has been a remarkable transformation in the debate on the Scottish constitution over the last three years.  All the opposition parties in Holyrood now support extending the tax powers in the Scottish parliament – even the SNP, though of course they want to go all the way and have full independence.

   But  I can’t see how these issues can be ever finally be resolved without asking the Scottish voters directly for their view.  As Wendy Alexander famously put it:  “bring it on”.  Risky for the SNP of course – on the current poll showings they would probably lose on independence.  But it’s equally risky for the other parties, and the Nationalists insist that they really do want a referendum.  And who knows, it might suit Alex Salmond to have independence parked again for another decade, while the “centre of gravity” shifts to implementing Calman or Calman plus.  The SNP have done pretty well since 2007 without independence.  

   As for the government in Westminster, David Cameron has not supported a referendum on independence in the past, still less a referendum on Calman – but everything is in flux at the moment, and therefore anything is possible.  The AV referendum could be the catalyst for a more wide-ranging constitutional renewal.    I suspect a majority of Tory MPs would favour a referendum if only to get the Scottish Question off the government’s back.  And if Labour and the Liberal Democrats are so confident that the Scottish voters would reject independence, then why not give them a chance to do precisely that?  When all these important constitutional questions are being addressed – voting reform, powers for the Welsh Assembly, fiscal autonomy for Holyrood, there really is very little justification that I can see for excluding independence.  

  But could the voters cope?  Would they not suffer from constitutional overload?  It’s hard enough trying to work out who should run Holyrood, but having to get your head round the merits of independence, the complexities of the Calman fifty-fifty tax plan, AND the virtues of the Alternative Vote system, might be enough to drive voters to drink rather than the polls.   But as I say, whether it is held on the same day as the Holyrood elections or not, the AV referendum could be a golden opportunity to reshape our constitution, put Scotland back at the centre of attention and put the national question to bed. 

  Now, whatever happened to Alex’s Bill for a referendum on independence? 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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