The Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has announced that he is tabling an amendment to the Scotland Bill to force an immediate referendum on independence. Clearly, this is problematical on a number of counts. Firstly, until the election the Tories didn't want a referendum to take place at any point in the future ever, but all of a sudden their zeal to "give the people their say" can't even wait until a week next Tuesday. Secondly, this isn't terribly compatible with all the assurances we've heard that Westminster won't interfere in the referendum process. And thirdly, it's a tad undemocratic to try to force an early referendum just a few weeks after the SNP won an overwhelming mandate for a later one. But let's leave all that to one side. What really bothers me is Rees-Mogg's proposed question, and the accompanying explanation of what the effect of a Yes or No vote will be...
"The Scotland Act increases the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Should there be full independence for Scotland instead?"
The amendment states that if more votes are cast for "No" in the referendum, then the full Scotland Act shall come into force. However, if more votes are cast in favour of "Yes", then the Scotland Act shall not come into force.
Now, do you think that many voters will actually spot that this is, in the strictest legal sense, merely a referendum on whether the Scotland Bill should come into force? Here's a radical suggestion - if the UK Parliament wants to hold a referendum on whether one of its bills should come into force, how about a straight question like "Do you want this bill to come into force?". Or, alternatively, if they want to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country, they could always ask "Do you want Scotland to become an independent country?", without starting with an irrelevant preamble about an entirely different subject. I don't know if Jacob ever asked a girl out when he was at school, but if he did I'm quite sure she thought he was asking to swap hamsters or something. A rough equivalent of his planned question would be something like this -
REFERENDUM ON WHETHER YOU WANTED AN APPLE INSTEAD OF THE BANANA WE HAVE JUST SENT YOU
The UK government is pleased to inform you that it has just sent you a FREE banana. It's utterly delicious and should be with you in a couple of days. But we were just wondering - would you rather have had an apple instead?
Please put a cross (X) next to one (1) option only.
YES, I would rather have had an apple, and fully understand that this means I will have to send the banana back.
NO, I am more than happy with my FREE banana, and don't want to cause any unnecessary fuss.
Still, we shouldn't be churlish - Jacob's question may be very silly and a transparent attempt to rig the outcome, but it's at least marginally more neutral than Alan Cochrane's preferred wording of "Do you want Scotland to be completely separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, totally alone in the world, without food, shelter or warmth?"