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.