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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.