A row was provoked last week when it emerged that the Scottish government’s public consultation on the forthcoming independence referendum was open to anonymous contributions. This prompted Anas Sarwar, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to suggest that the whole process had been “designed for abuse”, in that it allowed individuals to submit multiple responses, presumably with the aim of distorting the outcome.
In its defence, the Scottish government pointed out, correctly, that previous public consultations – including a recent one on same-sex marriage which received as many as 50,000 submissions – had been conducted according to similar guidelines and no-one had questioned their legitimacy. But Labour insisted, also correctly, that anonymous submissions should be discounted from the final official tally of total contributions. Eventually, the Scottish government relented and agreed to consider as valid only those submissions whose authors could be identified.
At this point, rather than fizzle out, the row intensified with the publication of the findings of the UK government’s own referendum consultation. Initially, they were seized on by Scotland Secretary Michael Moore as evidence of widespread support for the coalition’s position on the timing and format of the ballot (70 per cent of respondents said they wanted the vote to be held next year instead of in 2014, while 75 per cent said they wanted a single Yes/No question). However, it soon became clear that these figures were not a reliable sample of Scottish public opinion. This is because a quarter (740 of approximately 3000) of all the Westminster consultation responses were identical. That is, they had been copied word for word from a “standard text” response available on the Scottish Labour website.
The SNP immediately claimed that this discredited the UK consultation, with Alex Salmond expressing concern that it had been “flooded” by made-to-order Labour submissions. But the First Minister failed to mention that the SNP also provided a “standard text” response blueprint for the Scottish government’s consultation on its website. We won’t know what percentage of the total submissions to the Holyrood consultation (so far there have been around 12,000) are based on the SNP’s template until they are published in May.
Two things should be taken from this rather farcical episode. The first is that, under current conditions, government consultations in Scotland are not accurate barometers of the public mood and in fact invite party political manipulation, particularly when they are concerned with issues as deeply polarised as that of the constitution. The second is that Scottish politicians are apparently incapable of resisting the temptation to score cheap points off one another, even if it means engaging in embarrassing retreats later on.
It should also be said that instead of having a UK government consultation and a Scottish government consultation – both of which, if conducted properly, could have been helpful in bringing the Scottish constitutional impasse to some sort of resolution – Scotland now has a unionist one, tailored to unionist preferences, and a nationalist one, tailored to nationalist preferences. Even Salmond, Sarwar and Moore would have to concede this renders the whole exercise of “consulting the public” more or less futile.