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8 May 2000

The ballot box gets a pounding

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

Scottish voters are the best represented in western Europe, at least in quantity. As Tom Brown reported (New Statesman Scotland, 24 January), adult Scots can each call on the services of no less than 17 MSPs, MPs, MEPs and local councillors to make their views known.

The chairman of Stagecoach, Brian Souter, believes that Scots need even more democracy. Having used his wealth and influence to make well known his personal view that Clause 28 should not be repealed in Scotland, he has announced plans to hold a privately funded national referendum on the issue. On 2 May, ballot papers were sent out to 3.9 million Scottish voters with a request that they be returned on 22 May. Souter’s organisation hopes to declare a “result” by 30 May. The whole exercise is being run by ICM Research, and it is expected to cost £1m. So that a spurious sense of objectivity can be seen to be imparted to these proceedings, Souter’s organisation has hired John Cowdall, an experienced returning officer at all sorts of official elections.

Alongside the referendum, the Scottish Parliament will be debating the Ethical Standards in Public Life bill, which contains the repeal of Clause 28, and it is expected to become law by 3 July this year, if the Scottish Parliament votes that it should. Every observer expects the clause to be repealed.

And there is every likelihood that Souter’s referendum will produce a “result” showing a majority of those who voted to be against the repeal of Clause 28. In this way, a false apposition will be set up, apparently showing the Scottish Parliament to be out of step with a manufactured expression of public opinion.

Even though this issue did not figure in either the Labour or Lib-Dem manifestos for the Scottish Parliament election, and even though no sensible commentator would include Clause 28 remotely near the top of any list of important issues affecting the country, this stage-managed trial of strength between Souter and the Scottish Parliament has turned out to be far more determinant than it deserves to be. None of the architects of home rule for Scotland could have predicted this referendum as a result of the Scotland Act. But the truth is that a small polity such as Scotland is vulnerable to pressure from wealthy people with strong beliefs. With an electorate of 3.9 million, and a cost of £1m to mount a referendum, millionaires – or even a consortium of the well off – can easily afford to mount this sort of exercise and be very influential in the politics of a small country. Where Souter leads, others may follow. What his initiative means is that money can buy a constituency of popular support for whatever passions or playthings a wealthy person might want to indulge. And these could range from the daft to the sinister.

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Far from offering additional choice or means of expression to voters, what Souter is doing is highly undemocratic. And if legal means exist to prevent him from mounting his referendum, they should be employed.

Nevertheless, some of the blame for this mess must rest with the Scottish Executive. There are very many far more important issues than Clause 28. It is an emotionally charged and polarising matter, and it should have been handled, if it had to be handled at all, with much more street wisdom and dexterity. The same could be said for the other unnecessary legislative detonation for this year, the proposed ban on hunting.

Souter’s referendum will probably see a low return of polling cards showing a majority against repealing Clause 28. In a vote organised by a group campaigning for that result, it should come as no surprise. And a low return will find a ready comparison, from Souter’s apologists, with the turnout at European and local council elections. The Daily Record‘s support for the campaign to keep the clause is regrettable and can only bolster Souter’s position. At the very least, the Record‘s editorial line will mean that the referendum is unlikely to be ignored.

And yet it should be. The 3.9 million voters in receipt of polling cards should throw them in the bucket. The proper place for the discussion of, and division over, this issue – if it must be discussed – is the Scottish Parliament, not the offices of Souter’s organisation. He was elected by no one to do or say anything, and he is only heavily involved in this because he is a very wealthy man who disagrees with the government. If he believes sufficiently passionately in the retention of Clause 28, then he should do what Sir James Goldsmith did – form a party and stand for election – instead of trying to buy his way into the argument.

Alistair Moffat

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