The SNP publishes its referendum consultation paper

Alex Salmond has very conspicuously left open the possibility of staging a multi-option ballot.

Earlier this afternoon, amid considerable domestic and international media excitement, the Scottish Government published its long-awaited referendum consultation paper. The document - Your Scotland, Your Referendum - lays-out the SNP's favoured blueprint for a vote on whether Scotland should become an independent nation-state or remain within the United Kingdom under the current devolutionary settlement.
 
Its key proposals are:
 

  • That the referendum should be held in the Autumn of 2014

 

  • That the franchise should be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds

 

  • That those eligible to vote in the referendum should be residents of Scotland

 

  • That the ballot should include the question, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

 

  • That the vote should be "administered" according to the same arrangements as local and parliamentary elections in Scotland and "co-ordinated" by the Scottish Electoral Management Board

 

  • That spending during the 16-week referendum campaign period should be limited to £250k per political party, £750k per designated campaign organisation, £50k per other registered organisations and £5k per individual and other separate bodies

 

Crucially, although not entirely unexpectedly, the consultation also leaves open the possibility of there being a multi-option ballot in which Scots would have the opportunity to vote for a "Devolution Max" or full-fiscal autonomy option. This will prove highly contentious. All the Unionist parties are united in the belief that the referendum should be conducted on the basis of a simple Yes/No question. They remain convinced that the nationalists, lacking a majority for full separation, want to secure maximum devolution as a "consolation prize". The Scottish government's response, as articulated by Alex Salmond in his statement to the Scottish Parliament today, is that there are many people in Scotland who don't support independence or the status-quo but would like to see the powers of Scottish Parliament significantly enhanced. As such, he argued, it is "only fair and democratic" that their views be heard.
 
Throughout his address, the First Minister aimed for - and more or less struck - a broadly conciliatory and statesman-like tone. Although he reaffirmed his party's commitment to independence - as well as its conviction that, following separation, the British nuclear deterrent must be removed from Scottish waters - he conceded that the UK Electoral Commission should be involved in the monitoring and regulating of the referendum campaign process, something which, up until now, the SNP had firmly opposed. He also acknowledged that the questions on the ballot paper should, in compliance with the Commission's guidelines, be presented clearly, simply and neutrally.
 
Another issue on which he indicated he may be willing to compromise was that of the referendum's legal status. "In order to ensure", he said, "that the referendum is effectively beyond legal challenge, we are willing to work with the UK Government and I look forward to my discussions with the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister in the coming days." This could mean the SNP is prepared to allow for greater input from London with regard to the conditions under which the referendum is held in exchange for the transfer to Holyrood of the legislative power to stage a binding plebiscite. On the other hand, it may mean nothing of the sort: Salmond is an expert at double-bluff and will certainly be hoping to wrong-foot his opponents ahead of a series of tough negotiations.
 
There is nothing particularly revelatory about the Scottish government's announcements today. Most of what is set out in the consultation paper echoes the kind of statements and sentiments the SNP has been making since it won its historic majority last May. It is worth noting, though, that if Salmond was really intent on staging a referendum in which the only two options were independence and the status-quo, today would have been a good day to say so.

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

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.