Scottish Labour embarrassed themselves horribly today when they jumped on comments from SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell in which he noted that the Scottish Government was only legally empowered to hold an advisory referendum on independence rather than a binding one. Not withstanding the fact that ALL referenda in the UK are only advisory, whether conducted by Holyrood or Westminster or anyone else, Labour’s humiliating blunder was in triumphantly asserting there was something new about this position, when in fact the very first sentence of the SNP’s National Conversation website – dating back over two years – says the exact same thing:
“The First Minister has outlined plans for a public consultation on a draft Referendum Bill which sets out proposals for an advisory referendum on extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament.”
But there’s another aspect to the nature of referenda that everyone seems to be inexplicably overlooking of late. The Unionist parties have recently ramped up a campaign in which they demand the SNP “clarify” every last item of policy in an independent Scotland, from currency and EU membership to renewable energy transmission costs, pension provision, and all the way down to what colour the First Minister’s going to paint Bute House’s front door. What nobody seems to have grasped is the fairly crucial point that that’s not what a referendum is for.
Referenda are not for deciding multiple policies. Nobody campaigned in the AV referendum on a platform of cutting the 50p tax rate or investing in public transport, they campaigned on whether they wanted AV or not. An independence referendum resolves one issue and one issue alone: who elects the next government.
In Scotland’s case, the referendum will determine whether from that point on it’s the people of Scotland who get to choose Scotland’s government, or (as at present) the people of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The policies of that government – and every one that follows it – will be decided by regular elections.
The Conservative Party, for example, is against UK membership of the Euro. If Scotland votes for independence in the referendum, Scotland will not then move to join the Euro, because the referendum is not about Euro membership. What will happen is that we’ll have a general election in May 2016, parties will stand in that election on a comprehensive policy platform which will include how they feel about joining the Euro, and the people of Scotland will vote for them.
The government and Parliament that comes into being as a result of the election is what gets to decide whether we join the Euro or not – and indeed, everything else down to the FM’s door hue.
If Scotland became independent the Scottish Conservatives could, if they wanted, campaign for election on a platform that they’d immediately apply to rejoin the Union. If they won a majority, they would be perfectly entitled to pursue that policy. It would of course be highly controversial, because the opposition would claim that people had voted for them on the balance of a whole raft of reasons, and might not necessarily approve of that specific one. The Tories might retort that those were cancelled out by some voters having voted for other parties even though they supported reunification, because on balance they preferred the manifesto of those parties.
It’s a tricky dilemma, because you can’t reasonably infer someone’s position on an individual policy when what they’ve actually done is choose their overall favourite out of several 50-policy packages. Which is precisely why we occasionally have specific, single-issue referenda that determine one thing and one thing alone, and why we keep them separate from elections. Am I the only one who gets that?