It's a sure sign of the genuineness of the Scottish Government's consultation on the referendum that it's so much harder to respond to than the UK government's parallel 'consultation' - it's actually interested in people's views on a range of points (some of them quite technical), rather than setting up a series of questions that are supposed to have only one answer, in order to provide some PR glitter to a pre-determined outcome. However, I did of course respond to the UK consultation (there's still time to have your own go at defusing the trick questions!), so it would seem very strange not to respond to the Scottish one as well. I've had to skip quite a few of the questions, though, because I simply don't have a strong view on them one way or the other. Here's what I've come up with...
1. What are your views on the referendum question and the design of the ballot paper?
The proposed referendum question is simple, direct, unambiguous, easy to understand, and neutrally-worded. I would strongly urge that no alterations or additions are made to the wording that might compromise this neutrality.
The ballot paper is refreshingly uncluttered, and is unlikely to cause voters any difficulties.
2. What are your views on the proposed timetable and voting arrangements?
I strongly welcome the proposal that a simple majority should be sufficient for either the 'Yes' or 'No' side to win the referendum. Any system with arbitrary 'thresholds' that allows one side to be declared the legal 'winner' in spite of having secured fewer votes than the 'losing' side is a grotesque parody of the democratic principle.
The timetable laid out is the most appropriate one, allowing sufficient time for public consideration and debate of the issues surrounding the most momentous democratic decision this country has ever taken, while also ensuring a resolution well before the end of the five-year parliamentary term.
3. What are your views on the inclusion of a second question in the referendum and
the voting system that could be used?
There is now such overwhelming evidence of public interest in the proposal for full devolution that to exclude this option from the ballot paper could only be seen as an effort to thwart an expression of democratic will, and to cynically force a large fraction of the electorate to give their 'support' to one of only two options, both of which they oppose. This is clearly unacceptable, and it is highly significant that opponents of the inclusion of a full devolution option have now resorted to technical arguments about the supposed 'impossibility' of a fair multi-option referendum, rather than directly arguing against the obvious desirability of allowing the public the broadest possible choice. Most of these technical objections are transparently bogus and/or inconsistent. For instance, when a preferential voting system was thought to be a possibility, it was suggested that this could allow independence to win on a 'minority vote' - and yet many who put that argument forward supported a Yes vote in the recent referendum on the Westminster electoral system, on the very grounds that only preferential voting could ensure that the winner of a multi-candidate election has the backing of a majority of voters. When the obvious alternative to preferential voting for this referendum was proposed (a two-question poll), it was then suggested that this could lead to a 'contradictory' outcome, with both full devolution and independence receiving majority support - and yet many who are now putting that argument forward raised no objection to the format of the 1997 devolution referendum, which could also have produced a 'contradictory' outcome had the public agreed that the Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers, but failed to agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament in the first place!
However, in spite of the dubious motivations of those raising the objections, it is important that the referendum is not only fair, but is seen and agreed to be fair. So I would urge the Scottish Government to take the critics at their word, and to select a format for a two-question referendum that strips away all of the stated objections, however thin. Two possibilities occur to me. Firstly, there could be a gateway question asking about the principle of greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, followed by a second question asking : "IF greater powers as proposed in Question 1 are approved, which of the following options would you prefer - full devolution or independence?" The second possibility is a 'run-off' format, in which voters are first asked a single question on independence. If there is a Yes vote, the referendum is concluded, but if there is a No vote, a second ballot on full devolution is automatically triggered, perhaps two weeks later. This format would remove any potential confusion about what people are voting on at any given time, and would completely exclude any possibility of 'contradictory mandates'.
The 'run-off' possibility could also be considered in circumstances in which the UK parliament passes unreasonable legislation designed to ban the Scottish parliament from asking a second question. The Scottish parliament could instead pass legislation for a consultative referendum on full devolution to be automatically triggered by a No vote in any single-question independence referendum held under UK legislative constraints. The principle of automaticity is vitally important to prevent the outcome of a 'forced choice' referendum being misrepresented by those who wish to thwart the democratic will of the electorate. A prime example of how such gross misrepresentation can be attempted is the repeated claims of Roy Hattersley that the 'Yes' vote to devolution in 1997 somehow represented a rejection of independence - in spite of the fact that independence was not on the ballot paper, and that the vast majority of independence supporters had voted in favour of devolution as the best option on offer!
7. What are your views on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 years who
are eligible to be registered on the electoral register?
I am strongly in favour of this proposal. Although the decision on independence has been characterised by both sides as "the most important we will take in our lifetimes", in truth decisions on consenting to sex, marrying, having children, etc, etc, are far more important from the point of view of the individual. If 16 and 17 year olds are deemed mature enough to consent to sex and to marry, they are surely mature enough to help determine their country's future. I am also deeply concerned that those who seek to deny 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in the referendum are only doing so because they fear young people will vote the 'wrong' way - a suspicion which is not allayed by the fact that some who supposedly support votes at 16 in principle are mysteriously opposed to it for this particular referendum. This is a profoundly anti-democratic impulse that must be resisted.
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