Willie Rennie had a Red Riding Hood moment on Newsnight Scotland tonight as he embarked on the impossible task of defending Michael Moore's plan for a constitutional "neverendum". Sporting the most innocent, wide-eyed facial expression he could muster, he informed us that Moore's wheeze was "eminently sensible" and that quite frankly he couldn't "understand what the fuss is about". Willie, mate, if you seriously can't see what the fuss is about, I can introduce you to approximately five million people who can. Let me put it this way - if an opinion pollster asked the public whether the issue of independence should be decided by one referendum or two, what do you think the answer would be? I think I'm on reasonably safe ground when I suggest that most people would regard the idea of having two referendums not so much as "eminently sensible" as...well, bizarre. And peculiar. And weird. And if it was pointed out to them that there would only be a second referendum if the unionist side lost the first one, the word would then be "anti-democratic".
But if Rennie is still confused about what the problem is, a couple of examples may be of some assistance...
Exhibit A : In the mid-1990s, the Labour party performed an astonishing u-turn by declaring that devolution could only happen if approved by a referendum. Menzies Campbell later spoke publicly about Labour's "betrayal" of his party - so not only did the Lib Dems categorically reject the notion that two referendums were necessary for that major constitutional upheaval, they didn't even think it was appropriate to hold one. But it gets better. One of the major complaints about Labour's referendum plan was that it separated out the taxation powers of the parliament in an additional question - there was a feeling in some quarters that this was a Blairite plot to sabotage the tax powers and thus neuter the parliament. But George Robertson had a cunning plan (billed, hilariously, as a "compromise") to reassure those who made this complaint. He proposed that even if Scots voted Yes to a parliament and Yes to tax powers, there would have to be yet another referendum before the tax powers could actually be used - the theory being that this would make a Yes-Yes vote much more likely first time round. This crackpot idea went down, unsurprisingly, like a lead balloon, and I'll give you three guesses as to which party was at the forefront of those ridiculing it. I vividly recall being in stitches as Andy Myles (then chief executive of the Scottish Lib Dems) turned to the TV cameras to "plead" directly with George Robertson to return to the path of sanity : "Think again, George. Drop this strange plan to hold a referendum with two questions - and then another referendum."
Well said that man. Think again, Michael.
Exhibit B : On Newsnight Scotland tonight, Gordon Brewer helpfully paraphrased the Lib Dems' position in a question to Stewart Maxwell. The SNP should be really happy about this proposal, he said, because after all they wanted a proper mandate for independence, and therefore the more votes that were held on the subject the better. Maxwell struggled to maintain a straight face. Oh absolutely, Gordon, the more the merrier. Perhaps seventeen referendums producing a Yes vote to independence won't quite settle the matter - how about holding another twenty-three? That sounds "eminently sensible" to me.
In their posts yesterday on the unionist "neverendum" plan, both Gerry Hassan and Lallands Peat Worrier made unflattering reference to Vernon Bogdanor, who in spite of being openly hostile to Scottish independence would have us believe that his personal view that two referendums are required (for which there is no international precedent whatsoever) is somehow an objective, indisputable fact drawn solely from his constitutional "expertise" (or perhaps from a tablet of stone passed down to him from the Almighty). What I find most curious about this is that you'd have thought the very first thing someone like Bogdanor would be pointing out is that referendums themselves are totally alien to the British constitutional tradition - there were none at all until the 1970s. There certainly wasn't one when Ireland was granted its de facto independence in 1922, for instance - the principle that applied there was that the sovereign parliament made the decision, and any suggestion that parliament had no business acting without a particular kind of 'permission' ought to leave a Westminster constitutional traditionalist like Bogdanor feeling distinctly nauseous. So this whole idea that a legally-binding, Westminster-conducted referendum is a "requirement" can be safely dismissed as the obstructionist red herring that it is. In the British system, a referendum is only ever held if parliament decides that it should be, and a referendum outcome is only binding if parliament passes a law specifically saying it will be - in other words, every referendum is an optional extra, regardless of whether it is "consultative" or "binding". By definition, therefore, if a second vote is held in this case it will be for nakedly political - rather than constitutional - reasons.