The constitutional tug of war between Westminster and Holyrood begins again this week, with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore meeting Alex Salmond for talks in Edinburgh today, and David Cameron following him a few days later. Although it wants the independence referendum to be held as soon as possible, the UK government is prepared to accept Salmond’s chosen date of autumn 2014, a few weeks after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.
But the timing aside, much else remains unclear. The two sides remain divided on the wording of the referendum, the number of questions, the role of the UK’s Electoral Commission and whether 16 and 17 year-olds should get a vote, as the SNP has argued. The UK government is determined for the referendum to be a straight yes/no vote on independence with no devolution max option included. The danger in leaving “devo max”off the ballot paper is that Scottish voters, the majority of whom support it, conclude that the only way to win fiscal autonomy is to vote for full independence.
It was for this reason that Moore indicated that further powers could be transferred to Scotland in the event of a no vote. As he told the Times (£), “The referendum is the start of the conversation, not the end.” What remains unclear is whether Moore was freelancing or speaking on behalf of the UK government. Although George Osborne is attracted by the option of devo max, which would force Scotland to raise its own money as well as spend it, few other Tories are.
Should the UK government and Scotland fail to reach agreement on the terms of the referendum, it’s still possible that Salmond will hold his own advisory ballot without the legal authority of Westminster. This would be open to challenge in the courts but, as I noted last month, Moore has indicated that the government would not launch that challenge itself. Yet as the blog Wings over Scotland asked at the time, why would the UK government not challenge what would be an allegedly illegal attempt to break up the Union? The government’s true opinion of the legality of a Scottish-led referendum will come under scrutiny again this week.