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Alex Salmond, electoral commission, independence referendum, question, scotland

And the Question is: what does independence mean?

From Herald 31/1/13

At last, we have a question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. Well, you have to agree it’s short and to the point, unlike some other independence referendums.
  In Quebec, the independence question in 1995 asked: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12 1995?”. No, I don’t know what it means either. And that was considered a model of clarity compared with the 1980 Quebec referendum question which ran to 108 words. So, don’t knock it: this simple, clear Scottish question is a considerable achievement.
Was it a defeat for Alex Salmond, who unionists said had tried to lure Scots into voting Yes by subtle psychological marketing? No, the Electoral Commissions amendment, effectively changing “agree” to “should” is not significant enough for that claim to stand up. I suspect the Scottish Government’s formulation: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country” was drafted precisely so that the Electoral Commission would have something to take out to justify its intervention and confirm its independence. Taking out “agree” makes it marginally less leading, but doesn’t alter the question.

Some might have quibbled about the use of the word “country”. I mean, Scotland already is a country – a nation – and never ceased to be one over the last three hundred years. What Scotland doesn’t have is a state, and what this referendum is really about is giving Scotland control of its own affairs as an independent “state”, which is a harder and colder word. Unionists might also have wanted some reference to “leaving the UK”. The question as it stands is silent on the future of the United Kingdom, which the Yes campaign insists will continue to exist if Scots vote Yes. This, though, is highly contentious. Is it possible for the United Kingdom to continue to exist if Scotland becomes an independent state? Perhaps a new UK would be created afterwards, but that’s another matter. Scots are being asked to leave the UK as we understand it, but this is not made clear in the question.
So, this doesn’t seem to me to be any kind of defeat for the Nationalists, as some newspapers were calling it. But I wouldn’t leap to call it a defeat for the Unionists either. It is short and to the point, and conforms to the terms of the 2000 Clarity Act, passed by the Quebec government on the advice of the Canadian supreme court, which is the internationally recognised standard for referendums on secession. There are no fancy circumlocutions or legal obfuscations. As things stand, we know from opinion surveys that a majority of Scots will say No to this question, and that is enough to allow Unionists to sleep easy in their beds.
The remarkable thing about this whole referendum controversy is how reasonable it has been. Both sides have played with a pretty straight bat. Cybernats an Unitrolls might disagree with that assessment, but the Edinburgh Agreement seems to me to have been a very fair document which avoided all the many opportunities to have a row. David Cameron has been true to his word in honouring Scotland’s right to hold a legally binding referendum on independence, on a reasonable time-scale, without undue interference. Not all national leaders are so sanguine about secession. The Spanish government in Madrid has refused to give the Catalans the right to hold a legal referendum on independence.
If Cameron had listened to some of his Tory backbenchers he might have said that, since the United Kingdom involves both England and Scotland, then English people should also have a say on whether to dissolve the union. But he didn’t, which was sensible because fighting over it would only have soured relations between the two countries, who agreed to voluntarily to incorporate in the 1707, and should have the right to leave it if they want. The bloody history of Irish home rule shows that if a component country of the United Kingdom really wants to leave, you just have to let them go. Cameron’s gamble is that Scotland doesn’t.
In this spirit of co-operation, Scottish Government has accepted the Electoral Commissions advice., both on the question and on campaign funding, which will be capped at £1.5m. This probably a greater concession by Alex Salmond than on the question, since it means the Yes campaign will almost certainly be outspent. But that was going to happen anyway. What is likely to be more of a problem for Yes Scotland is maintaining political balance during the 16 week referendum campaign, especially on broadcasting. They are up against the combined might of the three opposition parties, the unionist UK and Scottish press and UK government departments, who have not hesitated to weigh in on issues like Faslane. Then again, since the Better Together parties =  Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrat – don’t agree on very much, and are uncomfortable sharing a platform, this may not be a great advantage. And more of those UK Treasury reports saying that Scots would be one pound worse off with independence would be more than welcome to Yes Scotland.
But what are the campaigns going to do for the next 20 months, now that there’s no procedure left to bicker about? Well, the Electoral Commission says that both sides should agree a statement – a “joint position” – making clear saying exactly what would happen after independence. The Scottish Electoral Commissioner, John McCormick said that this was very much the message they were getting from their focus groups. Voters want to know what they’re in for. Now, this really would be a challenge – some the greatest minds of their generation have been trying to work out what independence means in the modern context, and have yet to agree on very much, apart from the fact that the Queen would remain as head of state.
The SNP say that the Prime Minister should now agree to hold talks on the future of independence, which David Cameron has repeatedly refused to entertain. He did so again yesterday, which was probably a mistake. After all, what has the UK government to lose in having talks about independence, given that the SNP’s concept of it is so fluid? Perhaps both sides might find they agree on what the new UK should look. Then we wouldn’t have to bother with the referendum.

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?


4 thoughts on “And the Question is: what does independence mean?

  1. Biggest loss of all was by the No brigade, who desperately wanted the question moved away from a Yes / No answer.

    Posted by Anonymous | February 1, 2013, 9:31 am
  2. interesting idea, let the politicians sort it all out and agree the divorce? Isn't that what led to the Velvet divorce?

    Posted by Domhnall | February 1, 2013, 9:48 am
  3. Small niggle, but you've managed to get the question wrong.

    Posted by JohnB | February 1, 2013, 5:16 pm
  4. The majority of Scots will say 'no'?I thought it was around 45% who were no voters and 35 yes voters. That gives neither side a majority of Scots, and 20% to persuade one way or the other.

    Posted by tris | February 2, 2013, 11:56 am

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