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 the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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