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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: A question of Scotland’s referendum question

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

The Electoral Commission yesterday passed its judgement on the question to be used in the Scottish independence referendum.

For those unaware of this particular battle, Alex Salmond has for some time been touting his preferred formulation: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” One hardly needs a degree in psychology to see how such a question might tilt the playing field rather.

Thus the unionist campaign has been doing what it can to highlight the issue and bring pressure to bear on the SNP. Better Together launched the amusing Referendum Fix website and mobilised their supporters to put their names to an open letter by Alistair Darling. They maintained that the question should be set by the neutral Electoral Commission, rather than a separatist administration that was seeking both to referee the referendum and campaign on one side of it, which seemed reasonable enough.

Yet the SNP posture for a long while has been that it might defy the advice of the Commission, which was widely expected to – and has – proposed a less leading alternative: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Much was made of the fact that the final say rested with the Scottish Parliament (with its nationalist majority), which will have to pass a bill on the referendum.

Of course, the desire to frame a debate in a favourable fashion is perfectly understandable. I have no doubt that some reading this would like Cameron’s In/Out referendum on the EU to be on a question like “Do you agree that our Kingdom should stand tall as a sovereign nation once more?” Yet such is hardly fair, and Salmond’s refusal to promise to abide by the EC ruling opened up the possibility of a prolonged and ugly political battle over the wording.

However, when the EC made its announcement yesterday Nicola Sturgeon immediately declared that the SNP administration would abide by the recommendation. Cue back-patting and sighs of relief from the unionist campaign, who were undoubtedly worried by the prospect of facing a Scottish rerun of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, whose legendarily leading question took Canada to the brink of breakup. Indeed, the separatist Quebecois premier has offered the SNP unspecified ‘data’ from the province’s last two secession attempts, alongside a broader offer of assistance to the anger of Quebec’s federalist opposition.

So this might be a great triumph for the pro-union side. Alternatively, there’s the case to be made that it is instead shrewd manoeuvring by the nationalists. Personally, I think the question ought to have made some reference to leaving the UK, along the lines of “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country?” It is scarcely more complicated than the present proposal and, unlike some wordings, allows the referendum to remain Yes/No.

For the nationalist commenters who claim not to see the merit in such a suggestion (‘leaving the UK’ being implied by ‘independent’, etc.), consider whether the Scottish government would have been likely to accept “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?” Independence is after all implied by ‘leave the United Kingdom’. But I don’t think so, somehow. Yet none of the four questions tested by the Commission (see page 11 here) deviate much from the model proposed by the SNP.

As Mr Thompson implies, it is readily believable that the Nats are ‘conceding’ to the Electoral Commission in no small part because the Electoral Commission still ended up giving them a favourable question. If so, it was very cleverly done. With all the hullaballoo Better Together has made of abiding by the EC, the British government – although technically distinct still a part of the unionist camp – has no room left for further objection.

For the pro-union side to suddenly turn on the EC, especially in light of today’s triumphal press releases, would not only be farcical but would undo and even reverse whatever political capital has been gained from the SNP’s apparent retreat. So for better or worse, that is the question we’re running with.

The Commission also recommended doubling the SNP’s proposed spending limit of £750,000 per side and rejected the proposed ban on business and civil society organisations involving themselves in the campaign – a ruling that will doubtless be welcomed by the openly pro-union CBI Scotland. The SNP have declared they will abide by both. So that’s something.


Whilst all that drama is unfolding north of the border, a constitutional/political milestone is also being passed in Wales. The Labour Welsh Assembly administration has elected to exercise its devolved powers and reject Michael Gove’s new EBacc examinations. As the Independent reports that “The move signals an end to the common examination system between the countries which has existed since the birth of state education.”

This sort of thing is the inevitable and indeed intended result of Labour’s approach to devolution, whereby its heartlands can be protected from the ravages of Tory rule – and even from those pseudo-Tories in Tony Blair’s New Labour governments. For this isn’t the first time Wales has opted out of new education policies. It previously decided that league tables were ‘un-Welsh’, whilst retaining the English examination system.

The result was close to a controlled experiment in the impact of league tables and, as spelled out brilliantly in this Bagehot column, “in education and public sector reform circles, the self-inflicted Welsh education debacle is famous, the stuff of dinner-table conversation.” Welsh Labour is no friend to public sector innovation.

I’m a big supporter of the ‘Gove Revolution’, if not of devolution and its attendant divisions. Yet if devolution allows Labour to hold at bay Conservative reforms, the corollary is surely that it allows the Conservatives to throw that back in Labour’s face if the reforms work.

Is there something in that idea? A big part of the party’s coming to terms with devolution has been attempts to make its local wings more ‘Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish’ without ceasing to be conservative or unionist. In many analyses, the connexion to the main party hangs around the necks of Ruth Davidson et al like an albatross, and the temptation is simply for local Conservatives to start to ape the political consensus they operate in rather than challenging it.

But if we believe that our reforms, when applied, will work – as we surely must – then is there not the prospect of turning that connexion into a source of strength? Of course, such a policy would have to be clearly and consistently pursued, lest you end up again in the situation recounted by Bagehot, where a compelling case for league tables gets lost in a convenient myth about public ‘under-spending’, but it could work.

For example, if Gove does significantly improve education results, and especially if there continues to be a gap between English and Welsh attainment, it will surely provide the Welsh Conservatives with the ammunition they need to take on the current political consensus surrounding education in Wales and the vested interests propping it up. They’ll have proven reforms to offer.

They’ll also have a clear line of attack on those who view devolution simply as a means of preserving a series of balkanised political fiefs against the pressures of political competition. Such a contrasting approach could stress the benefits of devolution, conservatism and union all at once.


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