Who owns the Scottish independence referendum?

Only one party has a mandate to hold a vote, and it's not the Conservatives.

According to recent reports, David Cameron is again exploring the possibility of staging a pre-emptive, Westminster-led referendum on Scotland's secession from the United Kingdom. At the same time, one of the country's leading authorities on the British constitution, Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, has claimed that the Scottish Parliament does not have the "legal competence" to hold a vote of its own, and that the UK government should call one "as expeditiously as possible".

The developments will be welcomed by the most zealous opponents of independence. Hardened Unionists like Lord George Foulkes and Tom Harris MP, currently a candidate in the race to be the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party, have been arguing since May that London should assume control of the referendum process in order to prevent the nationalists from "rigging" it in their favour.

Events over the last couple of weeks may have encouraged other, more moderate Unionists to move toward this position, too. Alex Salmond's assertion that any kind of majority for full Scottish sovereignty would be binding - even if in a two or three option ballot it is delivered alongside a larger majority for, say, full fiscal autonomy - has re-enforced the No camp's suspicion that the SNP cannot be trusted to play fair when it comes to Scotland's constitutional future.

But can anyone? The Unionist parties accuse the Scottish government of being incapable of running an impartial ballot because it has an interest in the outcome. Yet there is no reason to believe the UK government - which, of course, also has an interest in the outcome - would be any more objective in determining the timing of the vote or the wording of the question. London's track record on the management of Scottish elections provides little reassurance. In 1979, Jim Callaghan's Labour administration manipulated the first devolution referendum by packing it with legislative provisions - like the infamous 40 per cent rule - designed to secure its preferred result.

Another, equally limp, Unionist complaint is that the SNP won't let the Electoral Commission (EC) oversee the voting procedure. Well, why should it? The last time the EC directly ran a Scottish election - in 2007 - it caused an unholy mess, with as many as 140,000 votes eventually discarded. At any rate, the question of impartiality has already been addressed by the Scottish Government. In its Draft Referendum Consultation Paper published last year, it pledged to establish a Scottish Referendum Commission to regulate both the campaign and the ballot. This Commission would, "with limited exceptions, be completely independent of the Scottish Parliament and Government in the conduct of its affairs".

Then there's the endlessly discussed matter of "mandates" - who has one and who doesn't? Tom Harris insists that the SNP, having campaigned on a platform to break-up Britain and not to turn it into a federation, has no mandate for a referendum on anything other than straight-forward independence. Perhaps he has a point. But then the rule works both ways. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats campaigned for an independence referendum in 2010 or in 2011 (or ever), so by Harris's logic none has any democratic right to hold one.

The UK parties also need to consider the likely political consequence of hijacking Scotland's referendum. Does Scottish Labour, which is in the process of trying to develop a more distinct Scottish identity, really want to be seen to be colluding with a hugely unpopular Conservative-led government to undermine the clear choice of the Scottish people? Do the Liberal Democrats - already a federalist party - want to risk full oblivion for the sake of a crumbling Union?

The personal credibility of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland are at stake, too. Both David Cameron ("The SNP has won the right to hold an independence referendum") and Michael Moore ("I firmly believe the Scottish Parliament, if it so decides, can proceed with a referendum") have stated at different times over the course of the last seven months that Holyrood is in the driving seat on this issue. This weekend, George Osborne also appeared to agree that the "ball is in [Salmond's] court". A sudden, coordinated u-turn would look like - and in fact be - an act of breathtaking cynicism.

In the coming months, the Scottish government is going to bring forward a motion at Holyrood which invites MSPs from across the chamber to affirm the "democratic authority" of the Scottish people. This 'Claim of Right' - first agreed on a cross-party basis in 1988 - will assert unambiguously that ordinary Scots should determine "the form of government best suited to their needs". Legally, of course, the motion will be worthless: Edinburgh doesn't have the power the challenge Westminster's sovereignty. But it is a typically astute piece of political manoeuvring from the First Minister. When it comes to a referendum on Scottish self-government, it seems, the people have the SNP's backing and the SNP can say with some confidence that it has the people's.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.