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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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