Scotland’s referendum consultations farce

Petty tribalism has ruined two potentially useful consultations on the independence referendum.

A row was provoked last week when it emerged that the Scottish government’s public consultation on the forthcoming independence referendum was open to anonymous contributions. This prompted Anas Sarwar, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to suggest that the whole process had been “designed for abuse”, in that it allowed individuals to submit multiple responses, presumably with the aim of distorting the outcome.

In its defence, the Scottish government pointed out, correctly, that previous public consultations - including a recent one on same-sex marriage which received as many as 50,000 submissions - had been conducted according to similar guidelines and no-one had questioned their legitimacy. But Labour insisted, also correctly, that anonymous submissions should be discounted from the final official tally of total contributions. Eventually, the Scottish government relented and agreed to consider as valid only those submissions whose authors could be identified.

At this point, rather than fizzle out, the row intensified with the publication of the findings of the UK government’s own referendum consultation. Initially, they were seized on by Scotland Secretary Michael Moore as evidence of widespread support for the coalition’s position on the timing and format of the ballot (70 per cent of respondents said they wanted the vote to be held next year instead of in 2014, while 75 per cent said they wanted a single Yes/No question). However, it soon became clear that these figures were not a reliable sample of Scottish public opinion. This is because a quarter (740 of approximately 3000) of all the Westminster consultation responses were identical. That is, they had been copied word for word from a “standard text” response available on the Scottish Labour website.

The SNP immediately claimed that this discredited the UK consultation, with Alex Salmond expressing concern that it had been “flooded” by made-to-order Labour submissions. But the First Minister failed to mention that the SNP also provided a “standard text” response blueprint for the Scottish government’s consultation on its website. We won’t know what percentage of the total submissions to the Holyrood consultation (so far there have been around 12,000) are based on the SNP’s template until they are published in May.

Two things should be taken from this rather farcical episode. The first is that, under current conditions, government consultations in Scotland are not accurate barometers of the public mood and in fact invite party political manipulation, particularly when they are concerned with issues as deeply polarised as that of the constitution. The second is that Scottish politicians are apparently incapable of resisting the temptation to score cheap points off one another, even if it means engaging in embarrassing retreats later on.

It should also be said that instead of having a UK government consultation and a Scottish government consultation - both of which, if conducted properly, could have been helpful in bringing the Scottish constitutional impasse to some sort of resolution - Scotland now has a unionist one, tailored to unionist preferences, and a nationalist one, tailored to nationalist preferences. Even Salmond, Sarwar and Moore would have to concede this renders the whole exercise of “consulting the public” more or less futile.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle