Ian Swanson: Keep parties out of self-rule decision

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Posturing is getting in the way of a vital debate, says Political Editor Ian Swanson

It’s a big decision and it requires a serious debate but at the moment the issues are being obscured by political wrangling.

The First Minister’s announcement of autumn 2014 as the Scottish Government’s preferred date for the independence referendum at least answers one of the persistent questions about the promised vote. The UK Government backed down on its plans to insist on an 18-month deadline for holding the referendum, but Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is still demanding that the Electoral Commission oversee the vote, the SNP scraps plans to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote and the ballot paper contains a single Yes/No question on independence with no third option of major new powers short of independence.

Pundits predict the SNP could compromise by accepting a role for the Electoral Commission rather than insist on appointing a new independent Scottish commission to supervise the vote, though it’s worth remembering the Electoral Commission was strongly criticised by MPs after the 2007 Scottish elections fiasco.

The Nationalists might also be persuaded to give up their plans for lowering the voting age. But Mr Salmond and his colleagues cannot afford to abandon the idea of offering voters a third option. Call it devo-max, devo-plus or anything else, the notion of substantial extra powers for the Scottish Parliament – which would probably mean Holyrood taking control of all or most taxes in Scotland and sending an agreed amount to Westminster to pay for shared services such as defence and foreign affairs – looks from the opinion polls like the most popular way forward with the public.

After the SNP’s stunning election victory last year, which took even the Nationalists by surprise, commentators are cautious about predicting how voters will behave. But polls consistently show support for independence falling well short of a majority and it would be an incredible achievement to change that by autumn 2014.

A devo-max option is therefore of more than academic interest to Mr Salmond and his colleagues. It could be the crucial factor which stops the referendum ending in defeat and rejection for the SNP.

When the First Minister first floated the idea of a third option on the ballot paper, he said it would be up to the opposition parties to come up with a specific proposal which could be put to the voters as an alternative to independence or the status quo. The Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaderships have shown no interest.

But now there is a move by what is often termed “civic society”, including the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the STUC, to promote a third option and encourage non-partisan debate about Scotland’s future.

One source says: “There’s a strong feeling the political parties are doing a lot of posturing, which makes it very difficult to have the discussion people say they want to have, involving the Scottish people.

“If you say one thing you’re labelled a Nat and if you say something else you’re a Unionist, which doesn’t do justice to the issue.

“So it was felt civic organisations could play a role in leading the debate and making space for people to discuss all the options. If you say it has to be just Yes or No you’re putting people into a corner when they want to discuss it in a more flexible way.”

A devo-max or devo-plus option would not be popular with many SNP activists, who see it as a threat to the party’s long-standing ambition of independence. But a third option would also wrong-foot Labour and the Lib Dems, many of whom do support more powers, but who could be left arguing against the idea.

The UK Government and the opposition parties in Scotland say they would like the referendum sooner than autumn 2014 but voters deserve a proper debate before being asked to decide on such a weighty issue. And so far neither side has even begun to put a detailed case on how Scotland would fare as an independent country or why our future is brighter inside the UK.

The politicians owe it to the public to end the wrangling and party point scoring and engage in a serious debate on the big issues now at stake.

iswanson@edinburghnews.com