Sunday 15 January 2012

There's nothing complicated about a two-question referendum

In response to this public statement from the Scottish Lib Dems/Willie Rennie.

I really don't see what all the fuss is about. The SNP have been completely clear about this.

First and foremost they want an independence question on the ballot. That is a question to the effect:

"Should Scotland become an independent state, Yes or No?" (legal wording ignored for the time being).

In addition to that, they want to have a question to the effect:

"Should the Scottish Parliament be given the range of powers so-identified as "Devo Max", Yes or No?" (again, the specific legal framing can be bashed out as and when)

If the poll produces the answer of "yes" to the first question the second question is irrelevant and should be ignored. Given they are two separate questions it isn't as though people are prevented from expressing their preferences. As Liberal Democrats we should trust the electorate to be able to tell the difference as and when it's laid out in front of them.

And the point about "following the 1997 model" is also a little bizarre. There is a similarity to the 1997 situation in that the questions are separate but related. But what Willie doesn't seem to realise is that the nature of the two questions means that the relevance of the second is, quite unambiguously, incumbent on a "No" vote to the first question rather than a "Yes". This is because they are alternatives rather than pre-requisites. If there is a "No" vote for Independence and a "Yes" vote for Devo-Max then the result is NOT the status quo, but Devo-Max. To suggest otherwise is a little like saying in 1997 "but what if they vote for tax powers but against a Scottish Parliament?" Don't be silly.

Whilst I have slight sympathy for the "consensus option" argument, in the context of how Willie and others have framed it I can't accept its validity. It is inconsistent to play the "which majority has the biggest mandate" card (i.e. say Devo-Max gets 70% and Independence 51%) and then also to say, as we appear to be, that a second question should not be on the ballot at all. If it is a straight Yes-No referendum with only one question, and independence wins it, we'll never find out if devo-max is the option offering the greatest degree of consensus because the question won't be asked!

In any case, as federalists and localists we should be working with the SNP on developing a presentable Devo-Max proposition. Get ourselves in the room and define the third option in terms of our own model of Home Rule instead of wrestling it from the ballot paper. As it stands, all we're serving to do is leave ourselves with nothing to say other than that we're the third-wheel of the Unionist "No" vote. That is unacceptable to me and an increasing number of Liberal Democrats. At the very least, I cannot bring myself to vote "No" to independence, as it infers an endorsement of the status quo. If a viable third option isn't on the table, I will be voting "Yes" to any independence question put before me (and not out of some great clamour for rosey notions of nationhood). If the Liberal Democrats won't champion an alternative, no one will.

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