It’s been a torrid few days in Scottish politics.
Since the SNP won an overall majority in the Holyrood elections last year, there has been much talk of the independence referendum they pledged to have in the second half of their term. They have been tight-lipped on their plans.
There has been uncertainty on the legality of such a referendum. Even respected legal blogger Lallands Peat Worrier, himself an SNP supporter, has expressed that the terms of the Scotland Act may not allow it. And amid all the bluster of this blog post from senior SNP strategist Stephen Noon is a recognition that a referendum run on the current arrangements would be open to challenge.
It is very difficult to imagine a Labour Secretary of State for Scotland offering to help the SNP out by giving them the power to hold the referendum. Relations between the two Governments between 2007 and 2010 ranged between hostile and toxic. In contrast, the Coalition Government and Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore have sought to meet regularly with Holyrood counterparts.
It’s with this background that Nick Clegg visited Scotland last Friday and upset the SNP who, according to the Scotsman, complained he’d called them “extremist”. In fact, he positioned the Liberal Democrat position as mainstream, and the positions held by both Conservative Party and SNP at opposite extremes:
All the evidence suggests that is the mainstream of opinion and the extremists are those who either think that we need to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom tomorrow, or those who say there should be no further change at all.
Then the next day, David Cameron told Andrew Marr that he was going to “settle” the confusion around the referendum on independence. It is difficult to overstate the incendiary effect of an English Tory Prime Minister making these sorts of comments in Scotland, especially when his advisers then brief about imposing an 18 month time limit for the Scottish Government to hold the Referendum. The Guardian reported that Nick Clegg intervened to make sure that this time limit idea never actually saw the light of day.
Michael Moore made a statement to the Commons yesterday outlining the UK Government’s belief that the Scottish Government did not have the power to hold the referendum. Rather than dictate terms, he launched a consultation, open to all Scots to have their say on how they felt the referendum should be run. His tone was conciliatory, as Hansard tells us:
Given the clear legal problem that exists, we want to work with the Scottish Government to provide the answer. This is not about the mandates of Scotland’s two Governments, or about who calls the shots. It is about empowering the people of Scotland to participate in a legal referendum. That means that the UK Government are willing to give the Scottish Parliament the powers to hold a referendum, which it cannot otherwise do legally. As well as being legal, however, a referendum must be fair and decisive.
Mr Moore made a good fist of things yesterday. His tone was conciliatory, measured, reasonable and, above all, it presented what looked like a cast-iron legal case for allowing Mr Salmond to conduct a binding referendum
There was more drama to come, though.
While Moore was still in the Commons, in what can only be seen as a deliberate attempt at upstaging him, Alex Salmond appeared on various news outlets to announce that he intended to hold the referendum in the Autumn of 2014. This seems to have caught the SNP MPs still in the Commons by surprise and showed little regard for the Parliament to which he is accountable and who might have expected to hear such news first.
Timing is one of three main differences of opinion on the running of the referendum which will need to be resolved. The UK Government fears lack of inward investment into Scotland if the poll is delayed. And a cynic might argue that if it were held next year, the rosy Britishness from the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics will still be hanging around. That same cynic might argue that in 2014, Scottishness would be at its premium following the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Second is the oversight of the Referendum. Every other election in the UK is overseen by the Electoral Commission. The SNP want to set up their own body for this poll, because it questions the neutrality of a body set up by Westminster. Of course, the neutrality of a new body could also doubted.
Thirdly, the SNP want to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in this referendum. Moore said yesterday that he wanted the franchise to be the same that elected the Scottish Government.
Less controversial appears to be nature and number of questions. All four main parties now seem agreed on a straight yes/no to independence question. There is concern that this may kill off any further devolution of powers if there is no so called “devo max” option which would allow Scotland to be entirely responsible for raising and spending its own money while remaining part of the Union.
There is a long way to go on the road to the referendum. It will require all parties to conduct themselves with civility and mutual respect, but I expect an agreement to be reached. I certaily don’t want to see my taxes being used to fight legal challenges when it’s so clearly unnecessary. It’s clear, though, that events of the last few days showcase both the good sense and influence of the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings