Yesterday, leaders of Scottish civil society met in Edinburgh to launch a campaign aimed at promoting a wider public discussion about Scotland's political, social, economic and constitutional future. The civic Scotland coalition is made up of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), an umbrella body for third sector bodies, the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), think-tank Reform Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the National Union of Students Scotland, the Institute of Directors Scotland and representatives from various religious institutions like the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church.
Speaking at the launch, Alison Elliot, Convener of the SCVO, expressed frustration at the way the main political parties had conducted the discussion so far: "(It has been) inadequate. The purpose of our initiative is to enable the debate about Scotland's future to make a connection currently lacking with the things which actually matter to people in this country". Although the coalition insists it is completely apolitical and holds no view on whether or not Scotland should become an independent nation-state, it also says that, over the next few months, it is going to examine alternatives to the status-quo, including devolution-plus, full fiscal autonomy and federalism. As Dave Moxham, assistant secretary of the STUC, indicated, it is highly likely that it will eventually come out in favour of multi-option referendum: "We believe that a significant proportion of (STUC) members are interested in options other than the status-quo and independence, and we believe there is space to take that debate forward."
In doing so, civic Scotland faces two substantial challenges. The first is that of running a politically neutral campaign around a highly politicised and divisive issue. The second is that of making the case for a referendum which offers voters a maximum devolution or devolution-plus option without actually endorsing any single constitutional position. In time, these balancing acts will almost certainly prove impossible to maintain.
Take the debate over the format of the ballot paper. The UK government seems set to oppose anything other than a simple Yes/No question, while the Scottish government has repeatedly hinted at its willingness to consider a two or three option system. This makes a confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster more or less inevitable. When it occurs, civic Scotland will have to back the former, thereby strengthening nationalist claims that they are more in tune with Scottish public opinion than their Unionist rivals.
There are a couple of other reasons why the launch of the civic Scotland campaign works to the benefit of the SNP. Firstly, it exposes the awkward position Labour and the Liberal Democrats currently find themselves in with regard to the constitutional debate. Both parties appear to agree that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be significantly increased, yet they also maintain that the referendum should consist of nothing more than a clear-cut choice between independence and the status-quo. This is completely inconsistent. If they are genuinely committed to an enhanced devolutionary settlement, they should join civil society in insisting on the chance to vote for it in 2014. Secondly, it gives Alex Salmond - arch gradualist that he is -- the mandate he needs and wants to stage a multi-option ballot. In the event voters reject independence, this would guarantee Scotland gained a high degree of fiscal autonomy in the very near future.
Clearly, civic Scotland is keen to avoid straying onto the minefield of Scottish party politics. Given how treacherous the territory is at present, this entirely understandable. Unless the Unionist parties give ground on the format of the referendum, however, it probably won't have any choice.