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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.